Bush So Far

Steven Hayward

August 1, 2001

After six months, the balance sheet on the administration of George W. Bush is making some conservatives nervous. The tax cut obviously counts as a major political achievement, while standing up against the lemmings of the world over the Kyoto global warming treaty provides evidence of a manly aspect to Bush’s character, as does Bush’s apparent commitment to press ahead with missile defense. On the liability side of the balance sheet, however, Bush folded up early on education reform, is giving ground on pork barrel spending in the budget, is surrendering on numerous regulatory issues in the face of a ferocious onslaught from environmentalists, and appears headed for a mugging over the patients’ bill of rights and campaign finance reform.

This mixed balance sheet led the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot to write that Bush is "Dr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton," principled and tough on some issues, but caving quickly to the conventional wisdom on others. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru worries that W may be inexorably sliding down the slippery slope to the same slough that consumed his father’s presidency. Ponnuru identifies the root of the problem as "an excess of what used to be a public virtue and still is a private one: civility."

It is not news that contemporary politics has become a bare-knuckle contact sport, with liberals more skillful and less restrained at dealing gut punches and other low blows. Ponnuru’s complaint about the genteel Bush family (though it can be applied generally to most Republicans) is that they are not willing to play rough, and hence are doomed to lose (politely) to the political street thugs of the Left. Both "compassionate conservatism" and Bush’s restraint in an attempt to "change the tone in Washington" are seen as signaling abject weakness.

Ponnuru and other critics are correct to suggest that Bush needs to pick some fights with liberals if he is to have a successful presidency. But before analyzing what fights might be worth picking, it is worth dwelling on Ponnuru’s remarkable sentence that flits by all too quickly: Civility used to be a public virtue. At first glance the loss of civility in politics would seem to be merely an aspect of the general coarsening of culture over the last generation. My favorite benchmark of this regression is Lenny Bruce, whose style of profanity 40 years ago generated criminal prosecution (in New York City, no less), but which today generates federal grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and featured broadcasts on cable TV. Given that kind of degeneration, it is no wonder that public discourse has descended to the level of a Crossfire food-fight or Jerry Springer hootenanny.

Yet the level of civility in public life is not merely a matter of style; Bush was not indulging in mere rhetoric when he said in his Inaugural Address that "Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment." At some level, there is a substantive dimension to civility—a dimension that suggests itself when one thinks of civility’s etymological cousin, civil society. The virtue of civility, whether in public or private life, is a significant measure of an individual’s capacity for self-government. Despite its surface plausibility, Ponnuru is mistaken to make a distinction between public and private civility. If public civility yields, private civility will eventually falter, too. And regarding civility as a virtue is important, as virtues are the result, pace Aristotle, of habituation. As Bill Bennett might say, a society that fails to habituate its citizens in the classical virtues will find itself less capable of self-government.

A society that sums up its virtues in civility is ipso facto going to be a more conservative society. The dogmatic Left, which long ago rejected the axioms and principles of self-government, understands this, which is why it consistently and instinctively defends every cultural degeneracy that comes down the road and opposes any public policy emphasis on civility, such as abstinence or character education in schools. The deliberate disregard for civility by liberals can be thought of as a low-grade form of Leninism—the worse things are, the better for us. A society that lacks the virtues—the civility—to govern itself will have to be governed by bureaucrats and their adjuncts in the "caring professions."

Thus President Bush’s announced intention to "change the tone in Washington" has rather more substance to it than may be apparent at first glance. The liberal interest groups—civil rights groups, feminists, environmentalists—now rely on egregious hyperbole to keep their troops fired up and to maintain their claim of moral authority. For the Left, the use of outrageous hyperbole to demonize their opponents is as necessary to their cause as is dynamite to a miner, because they would lose any civil argument.

The Robert Bork nomination fight of 1987 is often thought to mark the turn to a new viciousness in American political discourse, but in fact the tone of public life has been degrading for more than a generation. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned back in 1967, as he surveyed the rapid degeneration of the civil rights, welfare rights, and antiwar movements, that "an era of bad manners is almost certainly begun." Remember "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today"? It does not require a long journey from such a starting point to arrive at last year’s despicable NAACP television ad implying that George W. Bush should be regarded as an accomplice in the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas.

Bush is hoping that by turning the other cheek and refusing to be drawn into a gloves-off rhetorical fight, he can win some points with swing voters (particularly suburban women, with whom Republicans are weakest) by casting the Left in a shameful light. It is tempting to attribute the hysterical rhetoric of the Left (such as Julian Bond saying Bush represents the "Taliban wing" of the Republican Party) to their intellectual exhaustion, to the fact that the Left doesn’t have many big ideas that are plausible or popular with voters. Edward Shils once remarked that "Liberals would sooner see their society ruined than learn something valuable to its preservation from conservatism." The old saying "rule or ruin" can today be modified into "rule through ruin."

The Left cannot be shamed by good manners alone, not simply because the Left is shameless, but because the decline of civility in politics reflects the fact that the consensus about the principles of American governance has shattered. The Left is not defined only by a preference for larger government, higher taxes, and more spending. If this were the chief difference between the two parties, political argument would be much calmer and more civil. Rather, the Left desires a different kind of government altogether—a kind of government liberated from meaningful constitutional restraints. Restoring "civility" in politics cannot then be accomplished without engaging in an argument about first principles, without making arguments about the connection between civil society and limited government.

The most obvious occasion for this kind of argument will be Supreme Court appointments. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) may have done Bush and conservatives a great favor by declaring recently that a court nominee’s ideology should be explicitly considered. This augurs a fight more bitter than the Bork fight in 1987, in large part because the Supreme Court’s role in ending the 2000 election dispute has provoked the furies of liberalism like nothing since the Vietnam War. But at least now the fight will be out in the open, rather than conducted through proxy issues such as financial irregularities or harassment allegations. This is potentially a large opening for President Bush to be bold—perhaps even sending up a conservative white male, rather than trying to put liberals in an awkward spot by nominating a minority.

Republicans have not been very good at conducting arguments about jurisprudence, however. Conservatives typically rest their argument on slogans about "judicial activism," when what is really meant is liberal activism from the courts. (After all, we want the judiciary to be active in the service of protecting our liberties from encroachment by the other branches of government.) Republicans should say so, confident that a majority of Americans prefer their courts to be conservative rather than liberal. Likewise with the corollary slogan conservatives like to use: "original intent." Republicans need to become more fluent in describing what that intent was (i.e., constitutional government), rather than leaving the impression that the Founder’s intent should be followed just because it was "original." Although most modern Americans have due respect for the intent of the Founders, they could be more effectively mobilized to support conservative court nominees if they were told why the Founders’ intent is good.

Bush’s emphasis on civility and civil society could also help him in the area where he is currently taking his worst public licking: the environment. Environmental policy seems the epitome of the kind of large technical problems that demand centralized expert bureaucracy to manage. There is a striking parallel between the environmental movement and the civil rights movement. Both movements achieved their principal legal goals more than a generation ago, and there has been considerable racial and environmental progress in the time since. The civil rights movement sees racism and poverty as "systemic" and pervasive, in every nook and cranny of American life as if racial conditions and black poverty are worse today than under the regime of Jim Crow. Because of this unfalsifiable view, any evidence that civil society is acting on the local level to correct the evils of poverty or racism is derided as meaningless by the Left. In similar fashion the environmental movement sees global crisis and signs of apocalypse everywhere, and no sign of improvement, or of local voluntary action to clean up a river, for example, is considered meaningful or significant. Such a radical view is necessary to justify relentless centralization of government.

Thoughtful observers in both parties have long recognized that the solution to bad neighborhoods cannot come from Washington DC, and that many environmental problems can only be solved by local action, too. For example, consider this observation: "We believe that people know what’s best for their own communities and, given the facts, they themselves will determine what is best to protect public health and the environment." The person who said this was Carol Browner, Bill Clinton’s EPA chief. (I remarked at the time that I didn’t realize Browner, who has a reputation as a radical environmentalist, was supporting Bush for president.) In other words, there exists an opening for Bush to begin talking about the environment in the idiom of citizen responsibility that he staked out in his Inaugural Address: "What you do is as important as anything government does. . . I ask you to be citizens: citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character. . . When this spirit of citizenship is missing, no government program can replace it. When this spirit is present, no wrong can stand against it."

Bush should start to say that "the environment" is not a special realm reserved for experts and professional activists, but an essential aspect of public life, a place for citizens. The obligations and responsibilities of protecting nature should be understood in much the same way, and given the same importance, as our obligations and responsibilities for our community schools and public safety. This kind of language is naturally decentralizing, and it will drive environmentalists out of their minds, because they don’t really take seriously the motto of their bumper-sticker, "Think Globally, Act Locally." Bush has taken some steps in this direction, most notably in his speech at Sequoia National Park in California in June, but the emphasis on what might be called "civic environmentalism" needs to be expanded to gain traction.

In other words, in order to make a serious attempt to restore civility to our public life, it is necessary to engage in some rhetorical jujitsu, i.e., using your opponents’ forward momentum against them. Acting in a civil manner cannot mean simply turning the other cheek at every rhetorical provocation from the Left. Turning the other cheek will only get it kicked black and blue. Instead, Bush should turn the other cheek, but stick out his ankle at the same time to trip up the Left as it lunges ahead in blind rage.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. His new book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, is being published this fall by Prima.