Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America (2006)
President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents, an elected band of brothers (and quite a few sisters) on a mission. He's an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters. He's a different kind of president in style and substance.
If they weren't doing such a disservice to their readers and the public discourse, it would be fascinating to listen to press, pundits and politicians as they completely misunderstand George W. Bush, a feat made all the more laughable because he's the most transparent leader we've ever had. Unfortunately, the talking heads have a variety of self-interests that they're seeking to vindicate which tend to obscure their view of reality. So, for the Left, George Bush is alternately an idiot, a neocon, a tool of oil interests, or whatever. For the far Right he's a crypto-liberal, betraying the legacy of Saint Ronald Reagan. And for the neocons, he's one of them, having been forced into agreement with them by the events of 9-11. The reality is that George W. Bush ran and has to a remarkable degree governed as a Third Way theoconservative, or what he called a "compassionate conservative."
Recall that his platform in 2000 consisted of cutting taxes, reforming Social Security via personal accounts, the Faith Based Initiative, No Child Left Behind, originalist judges, moralistic foreign policy, and a very few other items. While much of this is simply classical free market conservatism, several broad themes emerged. First, by combining the school vouchers of NCLB with the personal accounts in SS Reform and the Health Savings Accounts in the Medicare Reform Bill and various other retirement savings reforms, the President has at least laid the groundwork for an Ownership Society, whereby citizens will be freed from dependence on the state by the creation of individualized but government-mandated security nets.
It is hardly a coincidence that this builds on the Welfare Reform that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich passed together and that similar reform is being enacted, or already has been, throughout the Anglosphere--in New Zealand; in Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair's Britain; in John Howard's Australia; and now even in Stephen Harper's Canada. The First Way was the long period of laissez-faire government, that pretty much left folks to their own devices and to social institutions when tough times hit. It ended with the Great Depression. The Second Way -- the New Deal/Great Society here in America -- was an experiment in statism and centralized safety networks. It ended here in the late-70s, when the economy came a cropper and is ending in Europe as demographic imbalances make it totally unsustainable. The Third Way is a synthesis of the two, using free market mechanisms and forces to provide education, health care, retirement, unemployment money to the vast majority, funded by themselves, while retaining government benefits for just the truly needy few, those who'd otherwise fall through the net. Because this means that libertarian conservatives will never realize their dream of totally destroying the Welfare State they've taken it hard and, because it means a fundamental transformation of the Welfare State and the triumph of capitalist principles, the Left has taken it no better. Thus, a George Bush is particularly despised on his far Right as a Tony Blair is on his far Left.
There is, of course, much naked political calculation to Mr. Bush's program. He's realized, as have his Third Way peers, that democratic voters are going to insist on some level of government-backed financial security. Any political party that hopes to win elections will, therefore, have to offer a comprehensive set of social programs. What he has sought to do with the Ownership Society is to make those programs as capitalistic and conservative as possible. For example, where Democrats still want to impose a Canadian-style National Health system, where Peter is taxed to pay for Paul's medicine, HSA's instead have each of us set aside money while we're healthy in accounts that will build up to tremendous amounts over time even as we decide what medical services to pay for from them, thereby increasing national savings and personal wealth, reintroducing consumer shopping into the health care market, and liberating citizens from dependence on big government. Though the mere fact that these are government created and mandated programs will always make them anathema to some on the Right, Mr. Bush is effectively using them to advance the broader goals of the Right. When you get down to the bottom of the matter, the calculation is that people who own property have a vested interest in the stability of their society. The Ownership Society, if it is successful, intends to make nearly everyone in America conservative.
There is likewise though a significant moral component to Mr. Bush's program, and to the Third Way generally, which is why the leaders advocating it across the Anglosphere tend to be so religious. As a society we just aren't willing to go back to the days of poorhouses and orphanages and the like. We will provide for the social welfare of our citizenry because we think it our Judeo-Christian duty to do so. For George W. Bush in particular, it just isn't possible to reconcile the First Way to the injunction to love thy neighbor. This too confuses those on the Right and Left who are secular and so can't fathom Mr. Bush's moral seriousness and spiritual motivations. This religious aspect also comes into play in the Faith Based Initiative, wherein social services are to be increasingly delivered by religious and other charitable organizations, rather than by government bureaucrats. Though, here too, it's important to note that even as he fosters the social sphere for religious reasons, Mr. Bush is, at the same time, bleeding the government sphere. Folks do not yet fully appreciate just how much doing the right thing tends to be the Right thing (something Alexis de Tocqueville recognized 150 years ago).
Part and parcel of this greater emphasis on religious institutions as providers of social services is the President's open evangelizing, his advocacy of a Culture of Life and his packing the courts with conservative judges. From partial birth abortion to stem cells to gay marriage, George W. Bush has put Judeo-Christian morality at the forefront of public policy in a way that even Ronald Reagan never did. In many ways his most significant cabinet appointment of the first term came with installing John Ashcroft as Attorney General and, had Mr. Ashcroft not developed health problems, he'd have likely gotten one of the Supreme Court appointments. This general re-moralization of American law restores personal responsibility in a way that compliments the Ownership Society reforms and it restores the idea that every man is made in God's Image and must be treated with dignity, the idea at the center of the Bible and, not coincidentally, of the Declaration of Independence.
If Mr. Bush's social policies are misunderstood, his economic policies are hardly understood any better. Even Daniel Altman, who helpfully coined the term Neoconomics to describe them, failed to grasp how sweeping the President's vision is in this regard. We've treated that subject pretty fully in the prior review of Mr. Altman's book, but suffice it to say, pretty much all of the President's tax and economic policies are geared towards getting all Americans to save more money so that it can be invested into the economy where it will drive the rate of growth. Like the Ownership Society, Neoconomics serves to increase the average American's stake in the stability of the nation and is fundamentally conservative in that regard.
The other major economic push that Mr. Bush promised was in the area of trade liberalization, both with the expansion of NAFTA to cover all of Latin America and within the WTO framework. Libertarian conservative became almost apoplectic when the President enacted temporary steel tariffs, but other than that his trade record is remarkable, including agreement in this Hemisphere, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, etc. The WTO negotiations have gone slower than hoped, but America keeps pushing as hard as it can.
If freer trade is the default economic position of the Bush Administration, the main political plank of the President's foreign policy agenda was initially to reassert American sovereignty against the infringements of transnationalism. Upon taking office he spiked the ABM Treaty and made it clear we'd never be party to the Kyoto Accords or the International Criminal Court without revisions extensive enough to make them near unrecognizable. The simple theory behind this -- to his foes simplistic -- being that America is and has been a unique force for good in the world and it would be inappropriate to allow others, less good, to tie us down.
Now, had the early years of the 21st Century unfolded as relatively quietly as the last decade of the 20th, there'd be fairly little more to say about the Bush presidency. Had he achieved only the legacy outlined above he'd already bid fair to being the most consequential president of modern times--on a par with, if not excelling, FDR and Reagan. But, of course, events intervened and 9-11 was an event of such massive proportions that it both forced Mr. Bush to govern differently than he otherwise would have and left many unable to appreciate the rest of what he's done. 9-11 and his response will always be the first line of any Bush biography and eventually obituary, even though they do not truly define his presidency.
Mr. Bush famously vowed, in a debate with Al Gore, that he would seek to have America assume a somewhat humble position in world affairs, but note that he also made it clear that we would seek to vindicate the cause of freedom in the world:
MODERATOR: Should the people of the world look at the United States, Governor, and say, should they fear us, should they welcome our involvement, should they see us as a friend, everybody in the world? How would you project us around the world, as president? BUSH: Well, I think they ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn't matter who you are or how you're raised or where you're from, that you can succeed. I don't think they'll look at us with envy. It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And it's -- our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don't think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We're a freedom-loving nation and if we're an arrogant nation they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation they'll respect us.If it's futile to argue that in the wake of 9-11 we've presented ourselves to the world with humility, it's also only fair to note that Mr. Bush's subsequent actions are foreshadowed even in that statement as well as in other pronouncements. Before 9-11 it was possible for us to ignore the Middle East and wait for the Islamic world to evolve towards liberal democracy naturally, but afterwards it became imperative to speed the process. A nation that, as Mr. Bush said, loves freedom, almost had to be expected to react to attacks from within the most unfree part of the world by forcing it towards freedom. Indeed, the War on Islamicism is best seen as just the latest, hopefully final, chapter in the Long War that has already seen us defeat Nazism and Communism--the other great challenges to parliamentary democracy. It's a last battle we'd have gladly avoided, but could hardly duck out of once we were attacked.
Oddly enough, the most controversial portion of Mr. Bush's response would likely have occurred irrespective of 9-11: regime change in Iraq. We needn't delve to deeply into psychoanalysis to opine that much of the George W. Bush's agenda has been shaped by the failures of his father's presidency. George H. W. Bush made five big mistakes:
(1) Dan QuayleGeorge W. Bush has, in turn, picked the most qualified VP in American history, even though he added nothing politically, potentially costing him the election. He's cut taxes four times and never made the Reagan/Bush mistake of raising them, even in the face of record deficits. He was so set on appointing an anti-Souter he was willing to buck his own party's chatterers to name a friend he knew he could trust not to go Washington. He put enormous effort into winning a historic re-election. And anyone who thought he was going to leave Saddam in power, irrespective of 9-11, wasn't paying enough attention to deserve the franchise, nevermind a column. When Saddam failed to honor the UN ceasefire accords he wrote his regime's death warrant. When he tried to assassinate 41 he signed it. 9-11 just made it easier for W to deliver it. We can argue 'til the cows come home about whether the war in Iraq was a good idea in particular or forcing liberalization in the Middle East a good one in general, but it seems awfully hard to argue that they aren't both just unfinished business, completely consistent with our history of advancing democracy in the world. in fact, it's arguable that the only real departure here is that WWI, WWII, and the Cold War were initiated by Democrats and naturally supported by Republicans, whereas this is the first major war to be initiated and conducted entirely by Republicans since the Civil War and Democrats, without a party stake in the outcome, just don't seem to be very good about supporting the nation at war, as they proved in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. The likelihood is that had 9-11 occurred on Bill Clinton's watch his response would not have been appreciable different. All that would have changed is that Democrats, the media and even Europe would be more supportive of the WoT.
Just as the Left has fundamentally misunderstood the President's actions post-9-11, so too have the neocons, and in much the same way. Where the campaign to liberalize the Islamic World was incipient in American History and Mr. Bush's own philosophy, it has been perceived as some kind of sudden and radical adoption of neoconservative doctrine. This has been exacerbated because the President had staffed much of the national security apparatus with neocons, so they'd be in place when he determined it was time to settle with Saddam. But they believed their own press and came to believe they were the tail that was wagging the dog. This reached the height of silliness when David Frum, the Administration's first prominent memoirist, wrote his book claiming that but for 9-11 George Bush would have had a failed presidency. It's typical of the neocons not to have understood the nature of the Ownership Society, Neoconomics, Culture of Life and all the rest and to mistake the distraction of the WoT for the centerpiece of this presidency. they've demonstrated just as much confusion over things like the President's demand for a Palestinian state, his interventions in Sudan and Libya, and his focus on India and other members of the emerging Axis of Good. For folks who are supposed to be secretly running things they don't much get their way and express an awful lot of bewilderment at what goes on around them.
All of which is by way of inexcusably long-winded introduction to what is far and away the most perceptive book on the Bush presidency to be written so far. Fred Barnes comes to the topic with a huge advantage that critics of the President on the Left and far Right and putative supporters amongst the neocons did not enjoy, he understood George Bush from the outset of his campaign, identified with his politics, and has therefore taken him seriously all along. Even though the campaign was only six years ago, people seem to have forgotten that George Bush annihilated the neocons chosen candidate, John McCain. In a revealing moment on the BOOKNOTES: much-missed Booknotes, David Brooks acknowledged:
LAMB: And how about your colleagues at The Weekly Standard? [...]That's a point that we should never lose sight of, that while John McCain would have had an easier time defeating Al Gore in the general election, the GOP chose George W. Bush instead and for intellectual reasons. It was Mr. Bush's campaign on the issues -- tax cuts, SS reform, Culture of Life, NCLB, etc. -- that moved the party regulars and they (we) would consider him a historic success even in the absence of 9-11. Mr. Barnes understands this and has written a book that ably captures the George Bush who has won two difficult national elections. He's been criticized for being too much a hagiographer, and it certainly isn't his intent here to rip the President, but folks could learn alot by reading just why so many conservatives are so deeply satisfied by this presidency and why the future of the Republican party is likely to be shaped by the changes Mr. Bush has effected. The term that Mr. Barnes settles on to describe George Bush's politics is "strong-government conservatism," borrowed from speechwriter Dan Casse. That seems as good a rubric as any to cover the various ways in which Mr. Bush is using the power of the presidency and the federal government for conservative purposes.
At some point during the first term, I got so frustrated by the failure of the punditocracy to present a full portrait of the President that I started collecting the few good essays I could find that might add up to such a picture. One funny thing is that several of the best are by fierce critics, who accurately dislike Mr. Bush because they recognize in him an enemy to much the Left had accomplished in the last seventy years. For awhile we toyed with making an anthology of the collection, but ran out of time before the '04 election. Now, at last, Mr. Barnes has produced the first really comprehensive book-length treatment of this presidency, presenting it as a coherent whole in a way that even the President and his terrific speechwriters haven't yet done. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of its authors role as a partisan conservative journalist with excellent access to the Administration and it will certainly be bettered some years down the road when some biographer has more time and perspective to bring to the task. But, for now, this is the best book available on the Bush presidency and its revolutionary nature.
See also:Presidents (George W. Bush)
-Fred Barnes, EXECUTIVE EDITOR (The Weekly Standard)
-The Beltway Boys (Fox News)
-Fred Barnes (Wikipedia)
--BOOK SITE: Rebel-in-Chief (Random House)
-EXECRPT: Chapter 1 of Rebel-in-Chief
-ESSAY: Bush the Insurgent: A president who won't kowtow to DC's establishment. (FRED BARNES, November 23, 2004, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY: A 'Big Government Conservatism': George Bush hasn't put a name to his political philosophy, but we can. (FRED BARNES, August 15, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY: Bush's Shake-Up-the-World View: Wolfowitz, Bolton and Huges understand it--and share it. (FRED BARNES, March 22, 2005, Opinion Journal)
-ESSAY: Rebuilding: President Bush can move forward by being bold and uniting both congressional Republicans and his political base. (Fred Barnes, 10/27/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: What Might Have Been: The Miers nomination didn't have to go this way. (Fred Barnes, 10/12/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Politics of Katrina: Partisanship begins at the water's edge. (Fred Barnes, 09/26/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: They Still Blame America First: The Democrats fall into the national security trap again. (Fred Barnes, 07/04/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Pro Bono: The president and the singer make common cause on Africa. (Fred Barnes, 06/27/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Winning Ugly: Republicans are doing better than you think. (Fred Barnes, 06/20/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Life of the Party (Fred Barnes, 04/11/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: A Great Christian: John Paul II was beloved by Protestants, too, because he was the world's greatest defender of orthodox, Bible-based Christianity. (Fred Barnes, 04/02/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Bush Factor: What the president has done for his party. (Fred Barnes, 03/28/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Bush's Breakthrough: The president's second inaugural address smashes the wall between the idealists and the realists. (Fred Barnes, 01/20/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: An Emerging Reform Majority?: On Social Security, Bush seeks a third way around the third rail. (Fred Barnes, 01/24/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Domestic Strategery: : Is the White House doing the best job to bring the president's daring domestic agenda to fruition? (Fred Barnes, 01/17/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Incredible Shrinking Dems: It was an annus horribilis for America's minority party. (Fred Barnes, 01/07/2005, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Act Two: Keys to a successful second term. (Fred Barnes, 11/15/2004, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Luck of the President (Fred Barnes, 9/11/04, The Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Shades of '44: It's time for the president to rally his "natural majority." (FRED BARNES, August 30, 2004, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY: The Shrinking Clinton: Big book, small legacy. (Fred Barnes, 06/28/2004, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Wilder Effect: Why Bobby Jindal lost in Louisiana, despite being ahead in the polls. (Fred Barnes, 11/17/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Zell Miller Endorses Bush: The Democratic senator from Georgia comes out swinging for the president. (Fred Barnes, 10/29/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The (Finally) Emerging Republican Majority: GOP officials don't like to talk about it, but they have become the dominant party. (Fred Barnes, 10/27/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Contemplating the L-word: Six reasons why the stars could be aligning for a Bush landslide in 2004. (Fred Barnes, 06/27/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Taking the French at Their Word: If you believe that France isn't acting out of pique and has sincere philosophical differences on Iraq, then they may not actually be our allies any longer. (Fred Barnes, 03/14/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: The Four Horsemen of Bush Economic Policy (Fred Barnes, Winter 2003, The International Economy)
-ESSAY: The Uncandidate: South Carolina's Mark Sanford succeeds by breaking all the rules. (Fred Barnes, 09/16/2002, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: On a Big Issue, Bush Goes Wobbly : Why is the president endorsing a provisional Palestinian state? (Fred Barnes, 07/01/2002, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Bush's Big Speech : It was the one at West Point, not the one on homeland security. (Fred Barnes, 06/17/2002, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: Michael Moore and Me: An encounter with the Cannes man. (Fred Barnes, 05/31/2004, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: A Question of Belief: Bob Schieffer asks. The candidate answers. (FRED BARNES, October 15, 2004 , Opinion Journal)
-ESSAY: How a Cause Was Born: Ronald Reagan, father of the pro-life movement. (FRED BARNES, November 6, 2003, Opinion Journal)
-ESSAY: Bill Bradley for Treasury Secretary: He could help Bush cut taxes. (FRED BARNES, December 18, 2000, Opinion Journal)
-ESSAY: Covering the Gipper: One of his great advantages was that he didn't care for or about the press. (Fred Barnes, 02/05/2001, Weekly Standard)
-LECTURE: Who Won and Why? (Fred Barnes, November 11, 1992, Ashbrook Center)
-Results: Tagged with Fred Barnes (Media Matters)
-ARCHIVES: Fred Barnes (The New Republic)
-ARCHIVES: "fred barnes" (Weekly Standard)
-ARCHIVES: "fred barnes" (Opinion Journal)
-ARCHIVES: Fred Barnes (BrothersJudd blog)
-ARCHIVES: "fred barnes" (Find Articles)
-ESSAY: The Education of Fred Barnes (Dale Steinreich, 3/29/04, Anti-War)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief by Fred Barnes (Tom Bray, Opinion Journal)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (CHRISTOPHER WILLCOX, NY Sun)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (Stephen M. Klugewicz, American Spectator)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (Isaac Chotiner, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (
-REVIEW: of Rebel-in-Chief (
Book-related and General Links:
-PODCAST: PASSING THE BATON: Will Inboden joins host Rebecca Burgess to discuss Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama, a collection of documents related to the 2008–2009 presidential transition. (William Inboden, hosted by Rebecca Burgess, 4/14/23, Liberty Law Talk))
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