On the surface, the main political story appears to be "Clueless Democratic Party Beaten to Pulp by Vibrant if Unscrupulous Republicans." But the bigger, weirder story is that liberals have won the culture wars -- and have corrupted the GOP with the worst aspects of their beliefs. Incredibly, the hard-right Bush administration has turned out to be composed of old-fashioned tax-and-spend, welfare-coddling, big-government liberals.
Before the 1980s the Republican base was conservatives who, as the word's etymology suggests, defended the status quo. Because most conservatives were wealthy (or at least comfortable enough to believe they might someday become rich), they were usually opposed to change. As a sports-minded observer attempting to paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith might have put it, "When you're sitting on the 50-yard line of life, you're not likely to trade seats." Conservative Republicans fought the right of workers to join unions, of blacks to vote and of the poor to pull themselves out of poverty. Justice for the disenfranchised requires change and change is always dangerous.
Yet the conservative tendency to let sleeping dogs lie undeniably resonates with a natural human inclination against recklessness and pointless destruction. Conservatives sought to protect much of what was good and right about America.
Fiscal conservatives were particularly passionate and persuasive; no one, after all, claims to favor government waste. In 1992 the first President Bush voiced the Ur complaint of GOP deficit hawks: "Each month millions of American families sit down to balance their checkbooks. The federal government must now do the same."
Conservatives railed against the Democrats' "big government" programs, calling attention to welfare fraud and pork-barrel spending. They believed in allowing workers to keep as much of their income as possible by cutting taxes. Lower taxes would also keep government small, freeing businesses from regulatory red tape and keeping nosy bureaucrats out of people's lives.
"That government is best which governs least," wrote Thoreau. It's a favorite quote among conservatives.
Recognizing that war is the ultimate destabilizer, Republican conservatives were typically opposed to using US troops to defend countries other than the US. The isolationist, America-first, anti-free-trade faction of the GOP, now led by Pat Buchanan, has long been an important part of the party, consistently represented in the party platform. Republican isolationists slowed America's entry into World War II; in 1976 vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole famously derided most of the military conflicts of the 20th century as "Democrat wars."
Though the Republicans' alliance with big business caused them to be soft on polluters, Theodore Roosevelt did more in his day to protect the environment than any president since, using strong-arm tactics to establish five big national parks and countless national monuments and bird refuges. Most people forget that Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. And in 1990 George Bush signed important amendments to the Clean Air Act. For many Republicans, conservationism was a natural extension of conservatism.
Then George W. Bush happened.
In 2000 Democrats ridiculed the first part of Bush's "compassionate conservatism." Little did they suspect that the last half would turn out to be the real joke.
By every measure, Bush the Younger has pursed an agenda that attacks everything conservatism stands for -- looking out for America first, smaller government, lower taxes, balancing the budget, respecting privacy rights. Even the neoconservatives who took over the GOP's ideological base during the 1980s -- defined in the Dorsey Dictionary of American Politics and Government as opposed to "government regulation of personal behavior in areas of morality, school prayer, abortion and so on" -- have been left out in the cold.
Bush the Big Spender. During the 2000 campaign Bush promised to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment, a long-time goal of the deficit hawks. He broke that promise. Bill Clinton had balanced the federal budget every year since 1997. When Bush arrived in Washington, the treasury projected a $5.6 trillion surplus through 2011. Yet less than a year later, he'd thrown away so much money on a tax cut for the rich that the country is now facing a $2 trillion deficit. That figure will go even higher if, as expected, Israel and the Pentagon receive an extra $14 billion a year to fight the "war on terrorism." In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush approved an additional $48 billion increase in defense spending, the biggest in 20 years, yet made no move to balance that raise with tax increases or budget cuts.
Bush Raises Taxes. In a replay of the 1980s, Bush's decision to cut income and estate taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations has led to reduced federal funding to states and cities. The result, according to the conservative Barry Goldwater Institute, is a huge budget gap in 2003 for the states and municipalities. "To deal with their prospective budget shortfalls," Jim McTague wrote in September 2002, "20 to 25 states will have to raise taxes, to the combined tune of $30 billion to $35 billion. Throw in the likely aggressive tax hikes by local governments, and the state-and-local tax boost jumps to $40 billion." By December estimates of the looming state tax increases exceeded $100 billion. Bush's "tax cut" is a brazen lie -- it's merely a tax shift, from the rich (who pay most of their taxes to the feds) to the middle-class, whose tiny federal cut will be more than erased by a rise in state and local taxes. Conservatives believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy, but we'll never find out this time around. Most Americans will end up paying higher taxes under Bush than they did under Clinton -- during a recession, when they can least afford it.
Bush the Big Government Kingpin. "[Al Gore is] a person who wants to increase the size and scope of the federal government," Bush charged during one of the 2000 debates. But the standard-bearer of the same party that once called for the elimination of the Department of Education has used the specter of the Sept. 11 attacks to justify the biggest reorganization and expansion of the federal government since 1947. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security will cost at least $3 to $4 billion through 2007. Amazingly, this boondoggle (involving 170,000 federal workers, and costing $38 billion during year one) doesn't include the CIA or FBI -- the rival agencies whose failure to cooperate allowed the 19 hijackers' plans to go forward after having been detected -- thus negating the main reason given for its creation. "Most of the resources are going to be outside the department's control," says French Caldwell of the market research firm Gartner Inc. "If that's not resolved, this is just another agency giving advice to the White House." Expect history to repeat itself; HomeSec will undoubtedly expand as the "war on terrorism" continues.
Bush's Bizarro Family Values. Respecting the elderly is the ultimate traditional family value (so important to GOP conservatives) yet "compassionate conservative" Bush is squandering the funds saved to make life more pleasant for Grandma and Grandpa. The CBO says that $1 trillion in Social Security trust funds has already been looted to pay for Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut; a system now projected to break down by 2028 will probably crumble even sooner.
Bush Puts America Last. Wages are spiraling downward. The stock market has tanked. Unemployment and underemployment are rising. A recession is the worst time to be opening US markets to foreign countries whose slave wages allow them to undercut the prices charged by American companies -- but that's exactly what George W. Bush is doing. In less than two years, Bush has signed or promoted free trade agreements with Central and South America, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, Morocco, South Africa and Singapore. That rumble you hear is John Birch Society members whirling in their coffins. And that giant sucking sound is American manufacturing jobs vanishing forever.
Bush the Welfare Pimp. More poor families are sleeping outside, but that doesn't mean Bush isn't wallowing in liberal-style welfare handouts. He's giving away your money to his friends, most of whom happen to be lousy businessmen. After Sept. 11, he gave the airlines, already doing poorly before the attacks, $15 billion. It didn't do any good, though -- at this writing United teeters at the brink of bankruptcy. Halliburton, Dick Cheney's old company, got a $10 million sweetheart deal to build dog cages at Guantánamo Bay for prisoners of war. Most recently, Bush promised to pay up to $100 billion to insurance companies in case of future terrorist attacks. Never mind that taking risks is what insurance companies are supposed to do -- and never mind that conservatism and government handouts didn't used to go together.
Bush the Snoop. Talk about "government regulation of personal behavior" -- since Sept. 11 George W. Bush has given us a level of intrusion Josef Stalin only dreamed of. The USA-PATRIOT Act, the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness project and expansion of the CIA, FBI and NSA have created a high-tech security apparatus ostensibly designed to intercept and apprehend potential Islamist terrorists. In reality, the prying eyes of the federal government are mostly directed at ordinary Americans. The terrorists, meanwhile, operate more freely than ever in places like Pakistan and Egypt -- while their corrupt governments cash even more American aid checks. According to Newsweek, Al Qaeda is once again running terrorist training camps in US-occupied Afghanistan.
Bush the Anti-Conservationist. To reduce dependence on Middle East oil, to help us recover from the recession, and to solve pretty much any other problem you can come up with, Bush's solution involves drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has gutted Nixon's EPA, softening regulations and ordering the agency to curtail enforcement of its remaining rules. Polluters are running rampant, national parks are being opened up to loggers and even companies that dump toxic waste are getting off the hook. Teddy Roosevelt would not approve.
Bush the Imperialist. Isolationism was a bad idea during the 1930s, but nowadays we could use some old-fashioned foreign policy conservatives. As the US gears up for a costly and useless war against Iraq, we've got nearly 10,000 troops losing the war in Afghanistan. At least 90,000 more soldiers have been dispatched to such Central Asian republics as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as Yemen and the Philippines. This massive expansion of military bases throughout the world is a huge expense, a surefire recipe for more resentment of the United States, terrorism and instability -- in short, everything conservatives fear most.
Hoover, Eisenhower and Goldwater were conservatives. George W. Bush is not. He's a radical right-winger applying selective liberalism in order to create an expansionist military empire centered around an oppressive police state.
Bush has given us the worst of both political worlds: the wasteful tax-and-spend big government of wild-eyed liberalism without any of the compassion or desire for justice that normally goes along with bleeding-heart bureaucracy; the most tyrannical aspects of right-wing demagoguery -- scapegoating, depriving people of basic rights, domestic spying, warmongering -- without any of the positive attributes that usually accompany it, such as attention to reducing waste and balancing the budget.
We Americans need both liberals and conservatives to lead us. But a government run by right-wing liberals will lead us into a world of trouble.
Ted Rall's latest book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled To Afghanistan and Back, is now in its second edition. See nbmpub.com.