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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Blaming Bush

(Reprinted from the issue of September 15, 2005)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for Blaming BushEveryone talks about the weather, in Mark Twain’s famous observation, but nobody does anything about it. No, but today we all demand to know why the federal government hasn’t done anything about it. Is that progress?

President Bush, who is rewarded for his vices and punished for his virtues, is being severely blamed for having been unprepared for the calamity of New Orleans.

He might have pointed out that, among other considerations, the executive branch of the federal government is assigned no constitutional responsibility for the weather in that city, any more than for whether the rituals of voodoo are practiced there. Instead, he has accepted responsibility and is asking Congress for an initial outlay of $40 billion, every dime of it unconstitutional, to cope with the mother of all messes.

The phantasmagoria of American politics! One month ago nobody was talking about what everyone is talking about today. The Democrats weren’t warning that it would be Bush’s fault if a summer storm should assault a major city on the Gulf Coast; but today, to hear Nancy Pelosi tell it, you’d think they’d been nagging him incessantly about the prospect, only to have him put his fingers in his ears and stick out his tongue.

Both parties leave much to be desired, but the Democrats are psychotic.

The mayor of New Orleans — or maybe we should say the demented titular mayor of what’s left of New Orleans — says, between profanities, that Bush doesn’t care about black people. Of course the Democrats have been saying that every day for several years now, so why does he say it as if it were a shocking discovery? It just goes to show you should save your slanders for when you really need them.

But this is modern democracy, isn’t it? Some of its marks are the constant yet fluxive sense of crisis, the serial obsessions, the insane partisan recriminations, and of course the bottomless generosity with public money. Gone are the days of such collected politicians as Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, who still had a firm sense of what government could and should do.

Revolting as Bush’s enemies are, I’d have more sympathy for him if he didn’t appear to think it has become unconstitutional for the president to use the veto.
Conservatism: The False “Triumph”

We incessantly read and hear that America has “moved to the right” in recent years. This impression seems to be even stronger in Europe than it is here.

I’m sorry to find this cliché endorsed by Kenneth Minogue, one of my favorite British political commentators. (Well, sort of British: He moved to England from his native New Zealand long ago.)

Writing in The Claremont Review, Minogue reviews a new book by two British pundits, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which, as its title indicates, embraces the cliché as history. Of course it all depends on how you define conservatism.

Certainly something has happened in American politics lately, but the notion that it’s a conservative revolution is due to an optical — or rhetorical — illusion. Yes, liberalism has been discredited, and most American voters don’t want any more of it. Politicians openly claim to be conservatives now; Bush calls himself a “compassionate conservative.” But that very qualification is a clue to what’s really happened. Some of his admirers also call him a “big-government conservative.” And these are people who consider themselves conservatives.

Yes, the Republican Party makes popular conservative gestures, but it has done nothing to repeal the gains of the so-called Great Society, let alone the New Deal. Bush has added vast new Medicare entitlements and increased federal spending on a scale worthy of Lyndon Baines Johnson himself (who was a far bigger spender than Franklin D. Roosevelt, by the way). In fact the Republicans now claim to be defending Social Security and Medicare from the Democrats!

Republicans who aren’t politicians, like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, even have fun making extravagant conservative (or at least anti-liberal) thrusts, like the slogan “Have you shot a liberal today?” — a parody of the old liberal slogan, “Have you hugged your kid today?” But this, after all, is humor, not serious action by people who have to face elections.

As the Democrats have moved left of liberalism, the Republicans have occupied the space they’ve abandoned, pretending that the old liberalism is conservatism. Well, it isn’t. The Republicans are doing most of the things that were once called liberal. They spend recklessly, ignore constitutional limitations, increase government power, create new federal programs, you name it — only they now call these liberal sins conservative virtues.

This allows incautious observers to think America is “moving to the right” even as it continues moving to the left. Any liberal who stops getting even more liberal is said to have moved to the right, when in fact he hasn’t moved at all.
From Burke to Kirk

It all began with the “neoconservatives,” but now it’s also true of people who used to be, so to speak, unhyphenated conservatives. Nearly forgotten today are major conservative thinkers of earlier times: Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Michael Oakeshott, Frank Meyer, John Calhoun, and Edmund Burke.

I spoke to Kirk, author of the classic The Conservative Mind, late in his life, and having devoted his career to keeping Burke’s flame alive, he viewed what was happening to American conservatism with dismay and disgust. Conservatism had become a mere label for a mass movement, its principles forgotten, its content diluted, its purposes baffled.

This was not the triumph of the conservatism Kirk treasured, but its vulgarization. The neocons were only part of the problem. They weren’t the only pseudo-conservatives around; others calling themselves so had nearly all succumbed to the basic error of what Oakeshott deplored as “rationalism in politics” — the very opposite of conservatism.

Maybe the real thing, Burkean conservatism, was always too delicate to survive in the rough-and-tumble of American politics, but nothing is gained by pretending it has much in common with Bush’s liberal Republicanism.

SOBRANS ponders the one word liberals never use. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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