Ed Driscoll

THE BIG PICTURE: The folks

THE BIG PICTURE: The folks posting in National Review’s Corner Weblog are grousing about Bush’s proposed increases in the NEA’s spending, and quite right so, but there are some interesting angles going on here. First, it’s an election year, and this sort of stuff sounds appealing to undecided moderates. Second, it blows out much of the Democrats’ demagoguery about the man. As David Bernstein of The Volokh Conspiracy notes:

Remind me again of why liberals are so hostile to George Bush? Give him a phony Haavaad accent instead of phony Texas twang, a wonky college life, a less religious persona, and an attorney general other than John Ashcroft, and George Bush, in theory, would be a dream president for many liberals, judging by their ex ante policy preferences. But the dirty little secret of American politics, as explained so well by Michael Barone, is that cultural cues are more important than policy and ideology. W just represents lots of things that coastal liberals dislike, and they will continue to dislike him regardless of how he governs policy-wise. But I find it amusing when they dress up their cultural prejudices in rhetoric along the lines of claiming that Bush is running a “right-wing” or “ultraconservative” administration that wants to roll back not just the Great Society, but also the New Deal.

Back in July of 2003, Jonathan Rauch wrote on Bush’s efforts to transform the Federal Government:

The plan, therefore, has both tactical and strategic elements. In the short run, give people things they want; in the longer run, weaken the Democrats’ base while creating, program by program, a new constituency of Republican loyalists who want the government to help them without bossing them around. Most important of all, however, is what might be thought of as the meta-strategy.

Essential to FDR’s success in capturing the loyalty of two generations — first the New Deal generation, then the Great Society one — was his success in capturing the mantle of progressive reform for the Democrats. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had been a reformer, but so was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. FDR’s hyperactive reformism decisively resolved the ambiguity. Regardless of what one thought of particular New Deal programs, as a group they established the Democrats as the party of progress. From that day to this, Republicans have been stereotyped as backward-looking and nay-saying — the stick-in-the mud party, the perennial advocate of “turning back the clock.”

The identification of liberals and Democrats with progressivism is essential to the Democrats’ political appeal and, especially, their self-confidence. When all else fails, they remain the party of enlightenment, not least in their own minds. Thus, in his new book, The Clinton Wars, Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton aide, characterizes Bush as attempting “to repeal the progressive policies of the 20th century.” Progressive presidents (meaning Clinton) “are elected because they stand for the idea that the old ways will not work — and should not work,” he writes, whereas conservative presidents (meaning Bush) “preserve their power through inertia… The allies of conservative presidents are indifference, passivity, and complacency. Nostalgia is the emotion that underlies many conservative sentiments — a magical belief that if little is done, a simpler, happier time can be restored and a world of change kept at bay.”

Conservatives, for their part, believe that today they are the ones who stand for progressive change, in the face of “reactionary liberalism,” but they have never been able to convince the public. That is what Bush seeks to do, both by rejecting the mantra of minimal government and by passing reform after reform. Never mind how you feel about any one of his initiatives; as a group, they seek to establish that it is Republicans who now “stand for the idea that the old ways will not work.” If the Democrats dig in their heels and fall back on stale rants against greed, inequality, and privatization, so much the better. The voters will know whom to thank for the empowering choices that Republicans intend to give them. As for which is the “party of nostalgia,” the voters will also remember who defended, until the last dog died, single-payer Medicare, one-size-fits-all Social Security, schools without accountability, bureaucratic government monopolies, static economics, and Mutually Assured Destruction.

Reagan, the other conservative reformer among recent presidents, made important changes, but his agenda was more about undoing (Big Government, inflation, detente) than doing. He also had to deal with a Democratic Congress and a predominantly Democratic country. Bush, by contrast, can reasonably expect to enjoy eight years in office with Republican majorities in Congress and, effectively, on the Supreme Court. Republican and Democratic voter-registration numbers are now about even.

While Bush is enlarging government programs, he’s frequently staffing them with conservative minds. Writing about the NEA, Roger Kimball says:

Under normal circumstances, the White House announcement that the president was seeking a big budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts might have been grounds for dismay. Pronounce the acronym “NEA,” and most people think Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs of crucifixes floating in urine, and performance artists prancing about naked, smeared with chocolate, and skirling about the evils of patriarchy.

Thanks, but no thanks.

But things have changed, and changed for the better at the NEA. The reason can be summed up in two trochees: Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet and critic who is the Endowment’s new chairman.

Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent “transgressive” freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a concentration camp. (Check the website www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org for more information.)

And Orrin Judd wrote in December:

The New Deal stood for the proposition that the government will take on the responsibility of providing for your every need. President Bush–though the process actually began with the Republican Congresses paradigm-shifting Welfare reform–is moving the country in a radically different direction, towards a system where the individual will resume the responsible, to the maximum degree feasible, of providing for his own social services–health care, unemployment insurance, education, mortgage, retirement, etc. (The operating title for this new system is apparently the “Ownership Society”, ownership evoking yesterday’s bit of de Tocqueville.) Now, conservatives, not known for their intellects, are terribly confused about all this, because the Welfare State which took 70 years to build wasn’t reconstructed yesterday, which is apparently their test of someone’s bona fides.

However, the Ted Kennedy’s and Hillary Clinton’s, far smarter and more sensitive to even tiny shifts in the zeitgeist than we Neanderthals, are well aware of what’s going on. Mr. Kennedy actually figured it out after helping pass the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is the No Child Left Behind Act. Nothing better illustrates the lag in Conservatives’ comprehension than their continued belief that the NCLBA represented a Republican defeat. More recently, the Medicare reform–which included means-testing, MSA’s and a series of other measures that Republicans have been pushing futiley for a quarter century–has been greeted as some kind of secret socialist coup by the Right, but Democrats fought it because they recognize that little reforms and the executive rule-making powers have a tendency to lead to sweeping change over time. And, at this point, time is on the GOP’s side–whether they recognize it or not.

This isn’t my vision of government–but then, I don’t have to get elected, either. And as Rauch wrote:

“The Republican Party in 1994 tested a proposition,” says a White House aide: “that people wanted government to be radically reduced. And they found out that people didn’t want government to be radically reduced.” Bush saw this, and he saw that the anti-government conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan had reached a dead end; and if there is a single characteristic that distinguishes Bush, it is his willingness to meet a dead end with a bulldozer. In 2002, “he really did set out to have the Republican Party stand for something different,” says Michael Gerson, who signed on with Bush in 1999 and is now his chief speechwriter.

Bush’s view, expressed in his book and in the 2000 campaign, is that government curtails freedom not by being large or active but by making choices that should be left to the people. Without freedom of choice, people feel no responsibility, and Bush insists again and again, as he put it in the book: “I want to usher in a responsibility era.”

Big government without statism? With a minimum of top-down controls? Doesn’t seem possible to me, and it’s not the government model I personally want, but then I don’t have to get elected, either.

UPDATE: Scott Ott “looks” at the first play those new bucks will be funding at the NEA.