June 14, 2004

In Reagan’s Shadow
Compassionate conservatism vs. the shining city.

Jonah Goldberg compares George W. Bush with Ronald Reagan:

Discussing the importance of dogma, William F. Buckley wrote in 1964, "If our society seriously wondered whether or not to denationalize the lighthouses, it would not wonder at all whether to nationalize the medical profession."

Reagan's rhetoric and actions moved America closer to a country where we argue about denationalizing lighthouses. George W. Bush's rhetoric and actions are moving us in the opposite direction.

Last Labor Day, George W. Bush told a crowd, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

Reagan would never had said something like that.

Indeed, Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has more in common with his father's "kindler, gentler" America than it does with Reagan's shining city on a hill. Fortunately, the first President Bush believed, as he put it in his first inaugural speech, that America had "more will than wallet."

The current President Bush has lots of will and a wallet full of credit cards. On the domestic side, Bush has asserted that the federal government has a central role in education - once a local concern - and he's backed that up with a 60 percent increase in federal funding.

He's created a new Cabinet agency, massively expanded entitlements in the form of a prescription drug benefit and asked for a major new commitment by the federal government to insert itself into everything from religious charities to marriage counseling. And these are just a few examples.

Now, all of these programs aren't necessarily bad. Some might be quite defensible from a political or public-policy perspective. Also, there are quite a few truly Reaganite ideas bouncing around this administration.

But, at minimum, Bush seems to have abandoned the rhetorical high ground. Reagan declared that government wasn't the solution, it was the problem. In countless ways, Bush has been saying the reverse. And once you concede that the "government has to move" every time "somebody" hurts, you've pretty much abandoned your dogma and picked up the opposition's.