When I voted for George W. Bush four years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing. He seemed like a breath of fresh air after the moral turpitude of the Clinton years and certainly offered a sunny contrast to the increasingly strident class warfare rhetoric of the Gore campaign. But I have to confess that I didn’t have terribly high expectations, especially after the narrow and contentious Electoral College victory and the virtual partisan deadlock in Congress. I hadn’t given much thought to the substance behind “compassionate conservatism” (in part because I wasn’t sure there was any) and regarded the “national greatness conservatism” of the McCainiacs as nothing more than a stirring primary season diversion.
Boy, what a difference four years make! Or, more precisely, boy, what a difference a day makes!
George Bush rose to the occasion of 9/11 in ways that few of us would have anticipated. He struck an impressive and thoughtful balance of mourning and righteous indignation, of reverential reflection and decisive action. The events of that day energized and galvanized his presidency, setting him ultimately on a collision course both with what we used to call the loyal opposition and with America’s enemies abroad. No longer did he have a seemingly modest domestic agenda hobbled by Congressional carping and opposition. Rather, he adopted an ambitious international program far beyond the imaginings of any but the most dedicated proponents of the “New American Century.”
Don’t get me wrong: as I learned about it, I actually liked Bush’s domestic agenda. Compassionate conservatism—the combination of limited government and unlimited love—actually held out a domestically transformative prospect, diminishing the size of government, raising the profile of “civil society,” and opening opportunity, responsibility, and, ultimately, independence to individuals who had hitherto regarded themselves and been regarded by others as mere victims of their circumstances. By empowering the powerless, compassionate conservatism could not only have made their lives significantly better but also have fundamentally reshaped America’s political landscape. The party of opportunity could have eclipsed the party of clientelism. The Democrats, who are very beholden to public sector employees’ unions, could be expected to fight this tooth and nail, and they didn’t disappoint. Even before 9/11, it seemed unlikely that this centerpiece of Bush’s domestic agenda would be enacted.
Of course, after 9/11, everyone’s attention turned to foreign and military affairs. There was a war to fight, not just a few cruise missiles to express our displeasure, but an honest-to-goodness campaign to take down the state sponsors of global (mostly Islamist) terrorism and dismantle the terrorist networks. The President made it abundantly clear that this war would be long and hard, that it was far-reaching, and that it could not rapidly be brought to a conclusion. A man who had apparently paid scant attention to international affairs and disdained nation-building undertook a most ambitious program of global conflict and transformation. While his critics might point to his alleged ignorance as the source of both his ambition and his confidence, I think it more directly follows from the simple truth he cherishes—that freedom is God’s gift to all of humanity—a truth that is no less true for being simple.
Indeed, I would go a step further: this simple truth is the principle that underlies not only Bush’s foreign policy, but also his domestic policy. The two seem to be at odds—the former distracting his pursuit of the latter—are actually intimately connected, albeit difficult to pursue simultaneously. One can only do so much with limited resources, and the pressing (because dangerous) will inevitably overshadow the desirable but apparently optional.
Serendipitously (Bush might say providentially), it now seems to be the case that the foreign “distraction” might well be necessary condition for the ultimately successful pursuit of the domestic agenda. Had the U.S. not been attacked, we might never have come fully to appreciate Bush’s gifts as a leader and he probably would have been able to point only to initially modest domestic accomplishments in his reelection campaign. In addition, and this is not insignificant, we as a people would not have been called to reflect upon what we stand for, which is, above all, individual freedom and responsibility.
Bush has the upper hand in this election—and at this writing (October 29th) is looking increasingly like a winner—precisely because at least a slim majority of us agree with him on the seriousness of the international stakes and on the essential unseriousness of the Democratic response. Over the course of the campaign, however, Bush has made it clear that he does not want simply to be a war president and that he has lots of unfinished domestic business, business that can be pursued in tandem with the continuing prosecution of the global war on terror.
If he is reelected, here’s what I would look for:
- An expansion of the “opportunity/ownership society,” with increased efforts to provide assistance to small businesses and first-time homeowners, as well as attempts to give everyone more control over their retirement income, not to mention their educational opportunities.
- Continued efforts to shore up “the culture of life,” through both legislation and litigation. Both, of course, depend upon the ability of the President successfully to appoint new Supreme Court Justices as vacancies (inevitably) occur.
- Entrenchment of the faith-based initiative.
Liberal Democrats rightly regard these domestic initiatives as threats because in the long run they strengthen responsible individuals and the non-governmental sector over against the state. (And while Bill Clinton might once have declared that the era of big government was over, he had his fingers crossed—and John Kerry had his fingers in his ears—when he said it.) Four more years of Bush might well continue to redraw the political landscape, contributing to the creation of a new Republican coalition, much more diverse and colorful than the Wall Street/Main Street coalition of the past.
So what we have this time is a harmonic convergence of anti-war agitators (either reliving their youth or emulating their celebrated elders), defenders of the big government status quo, and sophisticated elitist culture warriors, all of whom recognize Bush as the enemy. In a way, Senator Ted Kennedy had it right when he said that we—meaning he and his political allies—had more to fear from four more years of Bush than from the Islamist terrorists.
Over the next four years, a victorious Bush would continue to gain recruits from the socially conservative members of the Democratic coalition—especially African-Americans and Hispanics. If the opportunity and ownership programs succeeded, there would be fewer clients clamoring for government services, that is, a smaller constituency for the party that trades on promising more and more of them. Indeed, the Democrats could be reduced to being the party of the rationalist and post-rationalist cultural elite, winning in Cambridge, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley, but facing radically diminished electoral prospects elsewhere.
Four years ago, none of this was clear. We were blissfully ignorant of the power and reach of the forces that had already declared war on us. We didn’t know how serious Bush was about changing the culture at home and how resolute he could be about facing challenges abroad. And we weren’t sure about the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
We know all of this now. This election isn’t just about Iraq. It isn’t just about whether we’re in a 9/10 or 9/11 world. Above all else, it’s about whether liberty is a gift of God or a gift of government, about whether we focus on human responsibilities or on untrammeled human power.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.