Stephen Bainbridge: Bush 43 has been a disaster for conservatives


Although press reports suggest that President Bush and Karl Rove are predicting the GOP will experience minimal losses in the November election and, as a result, hold both the House and Senate, this optimism appears wholly misplaced.

It now seems clear that George W. Bush has permanently lost the confidence of the bulk of the American people. His approval ratings remain mired in the 30s and, unlike past election cycles, many Republican candidates are running away from Bush as fast as they can. As the Los Angeles Times noted in endorsing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for re-election: "He has distinguished himself from the Bush administration. …"

Bush was blessed with the opportunity to effect many long-term conservative goals. For most of his presidency, the GOP controlled the White House and Congress, as well as having a solid critical mass in the courts. Despite these advantages, however, what has Bush really accomplished?

Is government smaller? Have we hacked away at the nanny state? Are the unborn any more protected? Have we set the stage for a durable conservative majority?

To be blunt, no.

In foreign policy, Bush opted to treat terrorism as a war rather than a problem for police and intelligence agencies. This choice remains problematic. Even if he was right to do so, he has waged the war incompetently. Osama bin Laden remains at large to taunt America. Even if bin Laden is essentially powerless, he remains a potent symbol. And the Taliban threatens to make a comeback in Afghanistan, where we seemingly have far too few troops to maintain control.

As for Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, it is clear that the administration lacked a plan for succeeding with the occupation. We still don’t have a handle on the security problems in Iraq. Our feckless handling of the country looks likely to breed another generation of jihadists, and there is no sign that Bush has a viable exit plan. Worse yet, he created an American gulag: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret renditions, the use of water-boarding and other coercive interrogation techniques that are little short of torture.

As conservative icon Russell Kirk observed of George H.W. Bush’s Middle East policy, "devastating Iraq (and the rescued Kuwait) is an uncompromising way of opening an era of sweetness and light. Peoples so rescued from tyrants might cry, as did the boy whom Don Quixote de la Mancha had saved from beating by the muleteers but who was thrashed by them not long later, nevertheless — ‘In the name of God, Don Jorge de la Casablanca, don’t rescue me again!’ "

We can debate whether invading Iraq was a necessary step in the war on terrorism. What we can no longer debate is that the Iraq war has brought the larger conservative agenda to a crashing halt, wasting a moment for which many in the conservative movement have waited for decades. If public perceptions of the GOP don’t improve soon, they threaten to undermine the conservative realignment for which we have long hoped.

At home, Bush has done little to advance the conservative movement’s agenda. Taxes were cut, but the budget deficit has ballooned. Entitlement programs haven’t been cut; instead, Bush rammed through the biggest expansion of entitlement programs in decades when he pushed the Medicare prescription drug benefit. No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley vastly expanded the reach of the federal government in education and corporate governance — areas traditionally regulated by the states. The Harriet Miers debacle culminated a series of appointments motivated by cronyism rather than merit and commitment to conservative values.

In short, Bush has been a disaster for conservatives. We’ve made little progress, while suffering major setbacks. Worse yet, Bush’s well-deserved unpopularity threatens to rub off on conservative policies and leaders.

Kirk once observed that the GOP "attracted public support by its appearance of practicality, its defense of private property and of a competitive economy, its reluctance — most of the time — to embark upon adventures abroad." Bush has disavowed these traditions. In turn, it is now time for the conservative movement to disavow Bush.

Instead of spending the next two years propping up a tottering presidency and a corrupt Congressional leadership, the conservative movement needs to cut the cord with Bush and start moving forward again.

Stephen Bainbridge is a member of The Washington Examiner’s Blog Board of Contributors.
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