Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Novak on Bush as conservative, part 2

Michael Novak has more to say after his debate with Joseph Bottum, noted here. Here’s his conclusion

President Bush has defined a new kind of conservatism. It is legitimate to criticize it, even to oppose it vigorously. But to do so honestly and accurately, one must note the change in method that President Bush has quietly and successfully been enacting. As often as possible, in as many ways as possible, he is using as the dynamo of personal choice and the methods of the market, not direct state-management, in order to make government programs more effective and more efficient. That is why Democrats, both of the old New Deal-type and of the new Clinton-type, oppose him so fiercely. They seem to see what he is up to better than many uneasy conservatives do.


Try to imagine the conservative future as Bush is trying to: Old-age assistance is mostly achieved by personal tax-exempt pension accounts. Medicare and other health expenses are paid for by means of personal, tax-exempt medical accounts (partly used for catastrophic insurance, mostly for ordinary health spending, and with a new incentive to watch over normal expenses carefully). Parental choice and market mechanisms help to weed out failing schools, replacing them with better ones.


Note that these new pension, medical, and school mechanisms deeply affect families, not simply individuals. This greater reliance on familial choice re-introduces a reliance on family, rather than on the state, as the chief agent of health, education, and welfare.


Bush has begun a major turn from the state toward the “little platoons” once celebrated by Burke, the “mediating institutions” that Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus emphasized twenty years ago. This is a profoundly conservative impulse.

It’s too bad that the President couldn’t defend himself as well as this.

Discussions - 15 Comments

Joe: Sed contra: With all due respect to Mr. Novak, I’m not buying. The President has never (6 years???) made a personal appearance at the annual pro-life march. Alito was forced on him after his own rose up against the Meiers nomination. The prescription drug entitlement is a budget bunker buster, along with so much other spending. He didn’t have the courage to put the WOT spending "on-budget". In retrospect, the Iraq detour was profoundly unwise (and I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, with or without WMDs), and foolishly un-conservative. His "Faith-Based-Initiatives" never gained much traction, because he didn’t push it, and didn’t fund it. Mr. Novak’s rhetoric is poetically moving, but substantially ineffective, because the President simply isn’t a conservative. Even the tax cuts which Mr. Novak applauds will be haunting (and crippling) our children and grandchildren for years to come. We wanted candy, and he gave it to us, along with a craven Congress which refuses to face reality. We get the president we deserve......and we have him.

I don’t think GW is interested in defending himself. He would see that as rolling in the muck, that’s not what men in the Bush clan do. Moreover, there is the Protestant Christian overlay to be considered. Christ "turned his face like flint to those that beat him, and despitefully used him." That’s what we’ve seen THROUGHOUT this administration. This administration ACTUALLY THINKS THERE IS VIRTUE in NOT responding to political criticism. Thus there is a weird blurring, as if responding to political criticism is responding to personal criticism. As if the two can be distinguished in the case of the leader of the free world, as well as the leader of the GOP.

There are so many weird strands throughout this administration that it blows the mind.

And I think there’s a great deal of wishful thinking in Novak’s analysis. Novak has praised the President for political courage. I don’t. He’s hanging on in the face of criticism that his own inaction, his own communicative passivity and his own idiosyncrasies have done SO much to create. HE’S the one to blame for this atmosphere of doubt, suspicion, hypercriticism, despair and defeatism. HIM, HIM ALONE.

What we have here is a strange sight in the history of statecraft and politics. We have a man who sees virtue in not responding to attacks, and also sees virtue in the fact that he’s being attacked. There is a Christ on the cross aspect to Bush. The more he is criticized for his good intentions, for his efforts to help the Iraqi people, the more he identifies himself with the sufferings of Christ.

So here are some of the stands. There is the blue blood strand, that wouldn’t stoop to answer to the political criticisms of yahoos and barbarians. Thus those criticisms unanswered find traction, gain salience. Then there is the idea of class, dignity, style. This is closely entwined with the previous strand of him being a blue blood, and to a certain extent, they’re inextricable. But this too lends support for Bush’s refusal to respond. We also see this in GHWB’s efforts to teach Bill Clinton about how a former President should act. So we have former President Bush trying to teach a Rhodes Scholar about class, about dignity, about appropriate and becoming behavior. There’s something favourable to be said about GHWB’s efforts, but politically, all it has managed to do is whitewash Clinton’s administration, and effectively place discussion of Clinton’s role in leading to the events of 9/11 off limits. Don’t ya know, EVERYBODY was to blame.

And then there is the Protestant strand of GW. We see this clearly in his personnel selections. What other White House would have found a place for a Harriet Meirs? David Frum relates this aspect of the White House best, in his book, his PRESCIENT book "The Right Man."

But enough from me.

2: Mega-dittoes, Dan. You have this guy pegged.

"It’s too bad that the President couldn’t defend himself as well as this."

What’s really "too bad" is that, conservative or not, the President has stood casually by and watch an innocent man, Scooter Libby, be literally eaten by his ravenous enemies.

Ah, what the hell, it’s just another day in Washington. Yawn.

Bush is now and always has been a moderate. He was a moderate when he was Governor of Texas. This should surprise no one. His conservatism was always a facade to help him get elected President.



Novak is giving him too much credit. He is not slyly slipping in conservative measures. He is meeting the left half way. That is what moderates do.



And Dan is giving him too much credit. His disinterest in responding to critics is not inspired by Christianity. It is likely an artifact of his patrician upbringing. Responding to critics is beneath him.

Perhaps not literally literally, Publius!

Publius, I concur. It’s a disgrace that this administration has allowed Libby to twist in the wind for something they know never occurred, for it was Armitage who disclosed the role of Wilson’s wife.

And Armitage is a real piece of work too, allowing the administration’s agenda to be crippled, allowing the country to tear itself apart over something he did.

What a piece of work Armitage is!

Dan P., I’m not saying it’s entirely his Christianity that is informing his response to criticism. I’m saying it’s an "all of the above." It’s his patrician upbringing, but it’s also his own current Christian practices.

Let me run this by you, and see what you think. This is something I’ve been mulling over considering the President’s performance.

Do any of you perceive a certain fatalism about the President’s policies, a certain "what will be, will be," a certain "nothing happens without God intending it" aspect of this administration’s policies. Now Protestantism professes predestination, which translates over to a casual, not hardcore by any way, a certain sense of Christian kismet, Christian karma. That would party explain why GW isn’t too interested in explaining himself, for what’s going to be, will be, with or without his explaining, with or without his cheerleading, defending and public relations efforts.

Sometimes I sense that about this President, and that attitude pervading this administration.

Lefties and liberals denounce the President for his Christian beliefs, as if they’re driving policy. I don’t think those beliefs are driving his policy, but I do think they’re informing his public relations efforts, or the lack thereof.

Check out the blog over at the AMERICAN SPECTATOR. There is a brief post about Douglas Feith’s frustrations with the administration’s refusal to defend itself in the media.

We’re not the only ones who have been puzzled by the inaction of this administration.

Might I just literally add the name "Scooter Libby" to the list of victims of the post-9/11 War on Terrorism? Might I add an asterisk by Libby’s name: one who was motally wounded by "friendly fire"?

Nay! For as I listened to Harry Reid, et al, gloating today, I can only conclude that Scooter was taken out by Democrat Party forces friendly to our enemies.

Patrician upbringing AND heavy Christianity. A dangerous combination that need not lead to wimphood -- look at Bill Buckley -- but very often does. So does either characteristic by itself, perhaps less often. W’s comment today about "respecting" the Libby verdict is a disgrace.

Dan has some real insights into Bush, but I do think the fatalism and unwillingness to respond are best analyzed free from heavy-lift theories of Protestant predesination, Jesus-on-the-cross, etc., unless we find Bush statements that directly point in such directions.

And this HIM, HIM, and HIM ALONE business is passion and rhetoric taking over. To take the logic of Dan’s angry comment seriously, one would forget that Bush is operating in a hotter climate of MSM aggression than any president has had to endure, one would forget the overall climate of debate in the nation is best symbolized by (and in part created by) the Dem big-wigs attending Michael Moore’s movie. That should be obvious, but I will add a much more tenative half-defense of Bush’s lack of rhetorical leadership: Fighting back against a crowd that just wants to fight, fight, fight can be a fruitless exercise that takes your mind off more important things. Bush failed to find the right balance, obviously, and more generally is weird enough that you wonder if he ever should have been nominated, but what’s really weird is what passes for public debate these days.

Carl, it’s not one strand, not one predominating theme, it’s a blend, a confluence, a cocktail.

I would like to think that the reason the Bush administration didn’t fight back is that it would serve as a distraction, I would like to think that. But I think it was more than that.

And it’s deadly important for the GOP that we understand thoroughly and comprehensively what happened with this administration, ESPECIALLY the second term, so that we NEVER repeat it.

Did you reach the blog over at American Spectator, they have a piece about Douglas Feith, and Feith speaks about precisely this issue, the lack of defense.

And lastly I should note, I use caps as others use italics. It doesn’t mean louder voice, it simply means italics, emphasis. That’s all.

Though I am passionate right now, the nation is at war, American men are fighting and dying in the field, a quasi-fifth column is wrecking damage on the home front, Bush is lost in the patrician clouds, and the stakes are incalculable.

Yea, I’m passionate right now. And I’m not the only one. If we had some passionate men around the President right now, all of this would never have happened. I would have fought this new tone fantasy the whole way.

Why hasn’t the President demanded a public apology from Armitage to the nation, to the administration, to the GOP, and especially, to Libby and his family, for all the damage done, and for all the malice Armitage and others at State held for this duly elected administration.

Bush is failing all across the board. We, WE had to ram Alito down his throat. His tax cuts are sunsetted, and won’t be sustainable with this level of spending. He’s lost both houses, within two years of winning one of the most decisive elections in our history. IT ALL happened in about 16 months. The GOP was on the verge of driving the Democrats back upon their urban redoubts, and relegating them to a coastal pathology. And Bush let it ALL slip away, with his new tone incompetence, with his naive attempts to continually ingratiate himself with people that despise him, loathe him, hate him, mock him.

Libby’s family is in ENORMOUS pain right now, where’s the President. Hell, where’s the VICE President?

It recalls to mind Nimitz’s message to Halsey during the height of the Battle for Leyte Gulf: "Where is Task Force 54.... the whole world wonders...."

Perhaps this is what compassionate conservatism is supposed to mean, based on Novak’s critique. While Bush uses rhetoric to reinforce this view, actions seem to be different - action that has need Supreme Court help. Whereas Reagan at least tried to stem the tide of the use and size of government, Bush (and the Republicans in the House and Senate) seems contend to use the same levers as the Dems, but to different ends. Not sure that this really shows the public that "choice" is in their control. It may simply tell them that politics should push the levers, with a different tune depending upon who is in control. It still argues that politics should control more than individuals. On Bush not defending himself - or others - one is left with the feeling that either he cant do it intellectually or that there is a certain righteousness that will not allow it.

The fastest way to implode the GOP and destroy the future of this last, best hope, is to embrace hyphenated Conservatism.

Bush is BOTH temperamentally UNWILLING to defend himself and intellectually INCAPABLE doing so. It’s not mutually exclusive. And the latter, reinforces the former. Were Bush to try to defend himself, in his own words, he would embarrass himself. And he knows it.

All of that happy talk we heard about how "TOTALLY DIFFERENT" he is in "private meetings" is pure bull. He is what he is, a verbal cripple, the son of a verbal cripple. The scorn for "the vision thing" runs deep in the Bush clan, it’s so bad it’s bred to the bone.

But not all of us Conservatives are like him, nor his family. We’re ready, willing and eager baby to mix it up.

In the beginning of the Second World War, our high command had to clear out a great deal of deadwood, just as we did in The Civil War.

Somebody needs to get the word to Bush that the brush needs to be cleared, and NOT in Crawford. Crawford can wait, the party, the war, the nation, the West, they can’t.

Dan, rock on, I’ve got NO problems with the all caps or your passion on this, even if I stick by my qualifications. I wish we had heard more of your sort of talk from conservatives during the miserable days of 2005 when it might have made a difference.

Bush should be impeached for (1) his support of the third-world invasion of the USA and (2) his support of the illegal neocon / neoliberal war in Iraq.

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