Ethics & Public Policy Center

Bush the Bold?

Published in The Weekly Standard on February 12, 2001



At the luncheon after George W. Bush’s inauguration, senator Mitch McConnell toasted the new president as an American “Joshua,” whose ability to bring people together would lead the nation to the promised land. It was a religion-filled day-with President Bush appealing to saints and angels in the cause of renewing “the spirit of citizenship.” For a nation that has spent the last half century erecting barriers to religion in public life and ignoring the religious grounding of its own history, the first days of the Bush presidency have marked a striking change.

But that change should not be overestimated. For all the media revulsion that has greeted Bill Clinton’s narcissistic departure from Washington, this is still a country that has so minimally defined the presidency that it gave the exiting Clinton a 65 percent job approval rating, the highest in modern history for an outgoing president. And if the passions and divisions of the Ashcroft hearing are any indication, then America may indeed need a political Joshua to bring it together on the most important moral issues. For despite Bush’s unifying call, echoing Jefferson, that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” many differences are just that-deep, fundamental, differences of principle.

On no issue is this more clear than abortion-where the absolutist agenda of choice over responsibility makes its most resolute claim. It is an issue that is important not only because of the moral gravity of the deed itself, but because it is intertwined with the moral challenges of the next generation-human cloning, genetic engineering, and in general the extent to which we are willing to manipulate human life in the name of happiness, compassion, choice, and progress.

Bush’s commitment to civility, the overarching theme of his first weeks in office, is a welcome change from Clinton’s guerrilla-warfare style of politics. But civility is not always the highest political virtue, especially if it degenerates into appeasement in the name of poll-tested realism, and retreat in the name of bipartisanship. If by civility it turns out that Bush means doing obvious, easy things that no one can cavil at, he will not achieve the restoration of American character that he claims is his political mission.

So what can George W. Bush do? Is there a New Republican agenda to be forged and a new governing majority to be created? Or are we in for a period of cultural stalemate?

So far, there is cause for both optimism and concern. As political managers, Bush and Cheney and their team have performed admirably. Clearly, Bush is not simply an economic and political pragmatist (like his father) or an anti-government zealot (like the Gingrich revolutionaries). He seems to be grasping for a practical philosophy of conservative governance, one rooted in his own faith and broadly appealing to the “quiet of American conscience.”

But the Bush team’s commitment to and capacity for political entrepreneurship is not yet clear. The promise to “unify, not divide” cannot obscure the fact that on the most important, most divisive, moral-cultural issues, Bush has not persuaded key constituencies to think and vote and govern themselves differently. He has not yet tried to redraw the political map.

Bush’s “faith-based” initiative is a much needed first step. But if it is pitched narrowly to the most suffering, most needy, most disadvantaged Americans-without contributing to a moral awakening among the nonjudgmental, post-shame, pro-choice elites-it will be a real but limited blessing, and perhaps in the end an unsustainable one.

To be fair, the new presidency has just begun. And perhaps Bush’s strategy of blurring the middle during the campaign, avoiding divisive social issues, and quietly trying to bring together Republican pragmatists and conservative ideologues, is political genius. Perhaps it is the basis for a new Republican majority, which Bush can expand by refocusing the conservative agenda on traditionally “liberal” issues, like fighting poverty, improving public schools, and expanding health care coverage. And perhaps Bush himself is wisely taking the long view-using his first 100 days in office to build comity and consensus, so that he can address the most divisive, most important moral issues from a position of strength.

But this strategy, if it is a strategy, has limitations: First, bringing together these old Republican constituencies does not address the problem that Republican pragmatists and Republican ideologues still seem to add up to no more than 48 percent of the electorate, the size of Bush’s vote.

Second, given the Clinton accomplishment of convincing much of the nation that Democrats can handle the economy just as well as Republicans, it may be that many Republican pragmatists are less firmly Republican than they once were. Indeed, if the economy falters, as it looks likely to do during the first part of the Bush presidency, even the 48 percent may be a high-water mark.

Third, the political viability and moral strength of the new coalition of compassion remains an open question. In the one area where he most tried to act like an entrepreneur-by reaching out to poor minority groups, especially blacks, as a “compassionate conservative”-Bush performed worse even than Dole in 1996. And in the segment of society that may matter most-the university and technological centers-he lost decisively, especially among those who voted predominantly on moral issues.

And so, fearing division and divisiveness, Bush seems likely to downplay issues like abortion, the role of women in the military, affirmative action, and the excesses of popular culture. Nor has Bush shown any urgency in connecting the religious soul of America-so eloquently described in his inaugural address-to the new politics, laws, and moral transformation required to bolster that soul against life-altering technologists, who prefer their own renegade powers to “God’s enduring purpose.”

It is precisely because of the technological revolutions just begun and on the horizon-because of what they mean for America’s understanding of “the pursuit of happiness,” because of the moral wisdom they require-that virtue matters most in American politics today, and not the virtue of compassion alone. And it is precisely because they are so powerful and so important that the political and moral disposition of the technological elite matters. And that disposition, right now, does not inspire confidence: This group lives by the creed that if it can be done it should be done, that technology is destiny. Most of them have little or no political education, little or no sense of personal or national tragedy, little or no memory of war, little or no sense of the stakes of their own inventions. The elixir they offer is freedom without suffering-a false freedom that reduces human beings to their chemical and genetic makeup, and makes them accomplices in cheapening human life to extend indefinitely their own “healthy” existence. But in a nation where civic ties have been weakened, where mass divorce has created a generation born into anxiety, where sexual freedom has become the norm-the potion is appealing. It has made its mark on the urban, new-economy centers that are largely Democratic strongholds; how long, one wonders, until it makes its mark, decisively, on the nation as a whole.

In response, the Republican party, if it is to succeed and to matter, needs to articulate an updated vision of the good society; a vision of America’s role in history and the world that goes beyond Bush’s call for “American humility”; and a moral and political framework to deal with the riddles of the new technological age.

As yet, compassionate conservatism has not shown itself fully able or fully willing to do this. Instead, what Bush appears to be doing-what he did fairly effectively during the campaign-is combining honest religious witness and belief with a Republican form of identity politics. Because of his deep Christian faith-and his appointment of Ashcroft-he has been able largely to avoid political engagement with the moral issues that religious conservatives care most about. (Though one wonders what pro-life activists were thinking when Bush, asked in the debates about the FDA’s approval of the abortion pill RU-486, replied, “I think once the decision’s been made, it’s been made.” Or when Laura Bush, more recently, said she does not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and Ashcroft called that decision settled law.) And instead of staking out political positions, Bush has repeatedly defended his own and everyone else’s “heart”-the presumption being that a good heart translates into good politics.

God, we all must hope, has a hand in America’s fate-as Bush, like presidents past, declared in his inaugural address. But so do leaders; and leadership does not happen on its own, even for those who are religiously serious. Perhaps religious witness is just what a demoralized America needs. But it won’t be enough by itself. The religious appeal to dignity needs translating into a new politics of dignity, the religious call to sacrifice into a new politics of sacrifice, the religious heritage of America into a new politics of virtue.

If Bush is to succeed as a politician and statesman, he must find ways to combine the old Republican agenda-lowering taxes, streamlining government, reforming middle-class entitlements, rebuilding the military-with a New Republican agenda: one that connects “old” moral issues-like abortion and the nature of the family-with “new” moral issues-like human cloning and genetic engineering; one that reconciles, to the extent possible, the political equality of women and the natural differences between the sexes, and that addresses the meaning of those differences for American institutions and American families.

In short, Bush the political manager needs to be a political entrepreneur as well. A political entrepreneur might find a way to connect the pro-life position with the pro-environment position, and embrace both in the name of reverence over choice, sacrifice over autonomy. He might connect campaign finance reform with public standards for entertainment, and embrace both in the name of civility and decency in public life. He might stop conceding government support of art and culture to the postmodern Left, and instead assert vigorous and increased national support for cultural institutions that unify and ennoble American life. He might prudently use American power to defend human rights around the world, and in the process awaken the nation to the sacrifices that meaningful freedom requires. He might pledge to put an American on Mars by the end of the decade, which would demonstrate how technology can be used for heroic rather than simply narcissistic ends. He might, if he were really ambitious, connect the democratic impulse in the nation with the responsibilities of democracy-and thereby restore a rudimentary understanding of the American political system and foster democratic resistance to judicial activism.

To be a political entrepreneur and Republican statesman, Bush will need to combine the politics of co-optation and confrontation; he must reframe the Left’s best issues-the environment, campaign finance reform, support for higher education, middle-class tax cuts-to serve conservative ends, while shaming (or ostracizing) the worst elements of the cultural Left for their extremism, nihilism, and anti-Americanism. And he must have a political strategy-and the powers of persuasion-to make this agenda appealing to the very constituencies that are most inclined either to pay it no attention at all (the mushy, nonjudgmental middle) or to reject it entirely (the new technological elite). This would be, as Bush put it in his inaugural address, “the serious work of leaders and citizens.” In politics, the supreme act of faith is to seek the votes of the unconvinced by challenging them rather than appeasing them. It is no small task. Perhaps God’s words to the original Joshua are as good as any: “Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed.”

Source Notes
Copyright: 2001 The Weekly Standard

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