Bush’s Dangerous Game

Steven Hayward

October 1, 1999

Governor George W. Bush has roiled the already troubled waters of conservatives in the Republican Party with his attack on their budget strategy, and with his sweeping criticism of their cultural pessimism and anti-government countenance. What’s he up to?

The great fear among conservatives is that Gov. Bush might indeed be his father’s son. "Compassionate conservative" sounds like an echo of "kinder and gentler," which was of course a code-phrase for a deliberate break from Reaganism. President Bush began his first moments in office, in his inaugural address, by saying he would not take on Congress, when nothing was more needful in American public life than to take on the administrative encroachment and irresponsibility of the legislative branch. So it is more than odd that the son should decide to take on Congress now, when his own party struggles to hold a tenuous majority.

Conservatives are right, therefore, to be on a hair-trigger against fresh tergiversations by the Bushoise. But we should also remain open to the possibility that there is a method to his madness that may redound to the benefit of conservative governance. There are a number of circumstances at the moment that too many conservatives ignore or dismiss to their peril. The most troubling poll data, for example, finds that the popularity of various conservative ideas falls noticeably when they are identified as Republican ideas. In recent years Republicans have had a reverse Midas touch with the public. This is not entirely their fault; a hostile media and an intransigently unscrupulous opposition party have clouded the public image of Republicans like so much squid ink. Their rhetorical lapses and failings get magnified, while their positive message gets refracted into dull ultraviolet tones.

Yet Gov. Bush is also correct that Republican rhetoric has been poorly calibrated in recent years. Ronald Reagan would likely agree with Gov. Bush’s remarks that Republican criticism of government has seemed to imply being against government itself. Reagan’s criticisms of government were always married to encomiums to the greatness of the American people, and the people’s capacity for self-government through our well-founded institutions. By forgetting this balanced rhetoric, many Republicans have become their own rhetorical albatross.

It is difficult if not impossible for a congressional party to remedy this problem by themselves. Congress cannot set the national agenda, which Newt Gingrich learned to his detriment. Only a national party leader can. Bob Dole, being a creature of Congress himself, never understood this, let alone did anything about it. If Bush does understand this, he can use his remarks as a pivot during the campaign, discussing how liberal ideas represent the violation of the principles of limited government. If successful he can rehabilitate the public image of Congressional Republicans and generate a governing mandate for both himself and Congress. It is a hazardous course, to be sure, but also a great opportunity. If he goes about this project with seriousness and deliberation, he deserves to have the chance to become Reagan’s heir. If he flubs it, and sets out only to achieve a personal victory rather than a party victory, then he will deserve to be known only as his father’s son.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.