Glenn Greenwald is rounding up examples of conservatives who are now protesting that the president isn’t one of them, but who took just the opposite view back when Bush-43 was a moniker rather than an unrealistic goal for his approval ratings. Fair enough, especially when it comes to the people now carping about the immigration bill. But he also wants to suggest that all such criticism from “the right” is cynical, opportunistic, and wholly novel. And this comes off a little disingenuous when you’ve got people like Jonah Goldberg, who Greenwald cites, arguing that the ones with the right to complain here are the libertarians, who turned on Bush pretty early, and clarifying that his own objections are of a piece with a shift in a more libertarian direction. What Greenwald’s reading as a dubious inconsistency looks to me more like the resurfacing of the old and longstanding tension between disparate strands of conservatism, with some people deciding that the libertarian strand looks rather better in the cold light of Bush.
Ross Douthat is out of sympathy with this reaction, which he cutely dismisses as the belief that “If innovation gave us Bush, then innovation must be a bad idea.” If that’s a bit glib, I will go a certain distance in agreeing that the spectacular insularity and ineptitude of this administration probably makes it a poor test for any ideology. There’s a part of me that is a bit glad Bush isn’t libertarian, as I suspect he’d find a way to discredit even (what I think are) good ideas.
Still, I don’t think our Sam’s Club Republican gets away entirely clean here. Sure, Ross is justified in giving us his best “that is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all.” But Marx didn’t write a brief in favor of liquidating the Kulak’s either. If your rhetoric and ideas keep getting “adopted, or co-opted” for bad ends, it’s worth asking whether you haven’t got a program that’s going to end up frequently serving as cover for “policy innovations undertaken purely out of political calculation,” at least in a world where political actors are known to occasionally engage in political calculation. David Brooks may not have been “begging for steel tariffs,” but when a movement’s intellectual class has decided to embrace the Hamiltonian wisdom of “using government to enhance market dynamism by fostering more equitable competition,” elected officials are likely to feel any cognitive dissonance the next time it seems there may be votes to be had by going that route. Similarly, David Kuo’s biggest beef with the administration’s faith-based initiatives may be that they were underfunded or that officials regarded evangelical leaders as “goofy,” but some of us are rather more dismayed by the way they were apparently used to funnel federal dollars for partisan political purposes. Nor do I think it’s just a function of this administration’s unique incompetence that there doesn’t seem to have been a huge amount of interest in gauging the performance of the programs thus funded.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame “compassionate conservatism” or “Sam’s Club Republicanism” for all the failures of the Bush presidency. But if political actors find it congenial to use your enthusiasm for big government as a cover for their own strategic maneuvering, neither do you get to issue a wounded, wide-eyed cry of dismay that your white paper wasn’t followed to the letter.