What We Miss About George W. Bush And The Neoconservatives

Today marks the official dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, an event that is already sparking reexaminations of the Bush legacy. In reality, Bush left office unpopular and he earned that unpopularity. President Bush presided over the near collapse of the American economy. He neglected a war that was thrust upon us to fight a war that he never should have begun. His judicial appointments consistently place conservative ideology before the law. And his administration flouted the laws banning torture. On the eve of President Obama’s first election, only 23 percent of Americans approved of Bush’s job performance.

More than four years later, Bush’s record of unnecessary wars and economic catastrophe speaks for itself. And yet, Republicans have largely decided that the lesson of his failed presidency is to tack even further to the right. In comparison to today’s GOP, George W. Bush appears downright moderate:

None of these nods to moderation can outweigh the battered economy Bush left behind, or the misguided war he prosecuted, or the legacy of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. But there is no need to lionize President Bush in order to recognize that he was a different kind of conservative than the purist ideologues that have come to dominate the GOP since he left the White House.

During the Bush years, the term “neoconservative” became little more than a pejorative thrown around to describe the kind of misguided thinkers that brought America in to the Iraq War. On domestic policy, however, neoconservatives were often the most sensible wing of the Republican Party. As neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz once explained, “the neo-conservatives dissociated themselves from the wholesale opposition to the welfare state which had marked American conservatism since the days of the New Deal,” and while they certainly wished to place limits on the scope of government, their limits did not rest on “issues of principle, such as the legitimate size and role of the central government in the American constitutional order.” In this sense, the neoconservative philosophy that dominated the Bush Administration was a sharp break from the conservatism of the early Twentieth Century that saw protecting workers and basic programs such as Social Security and Medicare as fundamentally anti-American and unconstitutional.


One unfortunate consequence of Bush’s failed presidency is that it appears to have also discredited the relatively sensible faction within the Republican Party that dominated the Bush Administration and created a power vacuum that even more virulent forms of conservatism could rush into. Both the Tea Party, with its calls to declare the progress of the Twentieth Century unconstitutional, and the rise of Paul Ryan, with his assault on the American safety net, are demonstrations of the much more radical forms of conservatism eager to fill the void left after Bush’s fall from grace.