Conservatism Itself

"We have to recognize that this was a defeat for Republicans, not for conservatives," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich summarized the 2006 Republican election rout. Republicans, George Will echoed, "were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism."

Conservatives now react to the debacle that is the Bush administration with two general strategies -- denial and disavowal. Conservatives are cutting and running from George W. Bush, blaming him for straying from the conservative gospel, and invoking, by contrast, an iconic Ronald Reagan as exemplar of that faith.

But the spin won't cover the reality. Over the first six years of the Bush administration, conservatives largely had their way. With Bush and Karl Rove pursuing a political strategy of feeding their base, Tom DeLay ramrodding the conservative majority in the Congress, and the corporate lobby enforcing discipline, movement conservatives set the course of the country -- with catastrophic results.

Each of the signature Bush follies -- Iraq, Katrina, Enron, privatization of Social Security, the Terri Schiavo case, trickle-down economics that didn't trickle -- can be traced directly to conservative ideas and the conservative think tanks and ideologues that championed them. In every case, conservatism failed, not simply because of corruption or incompetence, but because of original conception. Sensate conservatives have, in the words Irving Kristol once applied to liberals, "been mugged by reality." Actual existing conservatism fails because it gets the world wrong. And invoking Reagan offers not salvation but confirmation of that failure, for Reagan championed many of the same ideas and inflicted similar debacles on the nation.

The war in Iraq was driven by the neoconservatives who lobbied for it long before September 11 or the Bush presidency. Infatuated with an America free to act as the lone hyperpower, they celebrated the imperial presidency and scorned the constraints that might be imposed by congressional debate, by our allies, by the UN, by arms control and international law. Steeped in the Cold War face-off, they had neither understanding of nor much interest in the stateless fanatics that would strike on 9-11. Rogue nations -- the "axis of evil" -- made better targets. America would spread democracy at the end of smart bombs.

The result is the worst foreign policy fiasco in American history. The war the conservatives made will squander no one knows how many lives and an estimated $2 trillion, demoralizing our military in an occupation in the midst of a civil war that alienates our allies, emboldens our enemies, and provides al-Qaeda and its offshoots with recruits across the Muslim world. The conservatives' scorn for international law led directly to the horrors of Abu Ghraib; the imperial presidency to the shame of Guantanamo.

Reagan's reign featured many of the same ideas, the same ideologues, with some of the same disastrous results. In his first term, he too championed U.S. military prowess, doubled the military budget, scorned arms control, the UN, and international law. Goaded by the neocons, he launched an illegal covert effort to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. His policies divided us from our allies. The blowback from his covert wars included bin Laden and what became al-Qaeda, which received U.S. training and aid in the covert war in Afghanistan. His imperial presidency ended in the Iran-Contra scandals, which paralyzed the last years of his second term.

Unlike Bush, however, Reagan ultimately had the sense to see beyond the neocons. When Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev essentially sued for peace, neocons dismissed it as a trick, and conservatives railed at Reagan for entertaining the arms negotiations that led eventually to the end of the Cold War.

Reagan also knew when to cut his losses. When Marines he'd fecklessly dispatched into the midst of the Lebanese civil war were blown up in a terror bombing, he quickly got them out of there, distracting attention from the mess by invading hapless Grenada.

Under Bush, the corporate lobby dictates economic policies -- top-end tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, corporate trade policies, the war on labor unions. The result is slow growth, Gilded Age inequality, the worst corporate wilding since the robber barons, stagnant wages for most, and growing pressures on kitchen-table basics. Bush's global trade policies have ravaged American manufacturing, while producing the largest trade imbalances and foreign indebtedness in the annals of time.

But again, Reagan offers no salvation for conservatives. He championed a similar set of policies -- what George Bush Sr. tabbed as "voodoo economics," -- promising top-end tax cuts, increases in military spending, and balanced budgets. In the process he helped produce the worst recession since the Great Depression, growing inequality, and record deficits. His trade policies laid waste to American manufacturing. His assault on labor and opposition to the minimum wage contributed to a decade in which wages stagnated while CEO salaries soared. Ten million Americans lost jobs to plant closings and layoffs from 1983 to 1988, with half of those who found work forced into jobs that paid less. And the recovery had been purchased on credit: It was during Reagan's presidency that the United States was transformed from global creditor to the world's greatest debtor nation.

Under Bush, the conservative belief that markets police themselves left corporations less accountable. This led directly to Enron and WorldCom, and literally hundreds of CEOs cooking their books, backdating stock options, and running up stock prices so they could cash out and clean up.

Again, Reagan provided precedent, not exception. His ruinous regulatory policies featured the deregulation of the savings and loan industry, producing the costliest financial scandal in U.S. history, with the bailout costing taxpayers more than $130 billion.

Under Bush, the "small government" conservatives found ample opportunity to effect their scorn for government. Corporate lobbyists were appointed to disembowel the agencies tasked with policing their clients, enforcement budgets were cut, as were domestic programs aimed at the poor. What Rick Perlstein has dubbed "e. coli conservatism" led to poisonous and uninspected food; denial of catastrophic climate change; and the weakening of workplace, consumer, and environmental protections.

Katrina was their signature catastrophe. Before Bush even got to office, conservatives scorned FEMA as a bloated entitlement agency. So Bush cut its budget, booted it out of the Cabinet, and stocked it full of cronies. The professionals departed in dismay. The incompetence and cronyism personified by "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" was a direct expression of the conservative disdain for the government they were running.

Reagan's scorn for government also had predictable effects. As his chronicler, Lou Cannon, writes, "Reagan thought so little of government that he did not think enough about it." The Department of Housing and Urban Development led the scandals, "enveloped," as a unanimous House Government Operations Committee reported, "by influence peddling, favoritism, greed, fraud, embezzlement and theft." By the end of Reagan's terms, 138 administration officials had been convicted, indicted, or subjected to official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violation -- more than in any prior administration.

Under Bush, social conservatives pushed to get government into our hospital rooms and out of the boardroom. Bush appealed to the fundamentalist right with a politics of polarization and pork. He cut short one of his many vacations to join the Republican Congress in intervening in Terri Schiavo's personal tragedy. He banned federal support for stem cell research and doled out billions to fundamentalist church allies in his faith-based programs. The Federalist Society insured ideologues were appointed to the bench. And of course the specter of gay marriage was used to divide the country and mobilize the faithful.

Preferring doctrine to science had untold consequence. Not only was promising research starved of funds, but other nations captured the lead in what will be the growing biogenetic industries of the future. The right-wing judicial activists are just beginning their drive to roll back citizen rights and empower markets.

Reagan set the same course. He ended Republican support for choice, campaigned against equal rights for women, and perfected race-baiting politics, elevating the mythic Cadillac-driving welfare queen into a national symbol. He, too, packed the courts with ideologues. Conservatives now deify him as a man who brought us together, but his political strategy, a more sophisticated version of Richard Nixon's, was quite purposefully designed to drive us apart.

The problem isn't incompetence or deviation from the conservative course. The problem is actual existing conservatism itself. It celebrates military prowess when the threats to our security -- stateless terrorists, catastrophic climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the growing gulf between rich and poor -- have no military solution. It offers no answer to a corporate sector shredding the private social contract that guaranteed many workers healthcare, pensions, job security, and family wages. It opposes the very reforms vital for our economic future -- the transition to clean energy and conservation, support of a world-class education system, and provision of affordable health care and retirement security.

After a quarter century of conservative dominance -- from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush and DeLay -- the verdict is in. Conservatives cannot be trusted to guide the government they scorn. Not because they are incompetent or corrupt (although incompetence and corruption abound), but because they get the world wrong. Their policies foster an America that is weaker and more isolated abroad, divided and more unequal at home. That was as true for Ronald Reagan, who helped give birth to this conservative era, as for George Bush, whose failed presidency should bury it.