The Sickening Defense of Bush-Era “Conservatism”
Recently, Jon Stewart interviewed former Minnesota governor (and likely 2012 Republican primary candidate) Tim Pawlenty, which can be seen here (for whatever I can’t seem to get WordPress to embed the video). The Daily Show is almost always a joy to watch, but in this particular circumstance the only thing I took away from it was frustration. Frustration, primarily, with Tim Pawlenty.
In the interview Stewart asks Pawlenty the perfectly legitimate question of why the rhetoric on the right changed so drastically with the inauguration of President Obama. As soon as he was sworn in conservatives were up in arms over the expansion of government programs, the “creeping” socialism, and the out of control spending and deficits. But as Stewart correctly points out, all of this was happening under President Bush. The Bush administration expanded Federal programs like Medicare, created new ones like No Child Left Behind (which Pawlenty favored), and increased spending by the greatest amount since LBJ (not to even mention the deficits). Pawlenty fumbled around awkwardly and tried to change the subject. He never really answered the question.
The most frustrating thing about the interview was that Pawlenty knew he was caught. Stewart had hit upon the primary contradiction within the Tea Party, a contradiction thing can only hurt the movement if it isn’t acknowledged. The inconsistency in behavior under Bush and Obama seriously weakens the Tea Party’s case against a heavily interventionist government. Conservatives can rage all they want against the Obama administration’s statism, but progressives will simply shrug and correctly ask, “so where were you during the eight years of Bush, huh?”
Progressives like Stewart are, believe it or not, genuinely curious to know where the inconsistency comes from. Unfortunately, when the right ignores the question like Pawlenty did, the default explanation people fall back on seems to be racism. If conservatives didn’t care about the massive government expansion under Bush, perhaps the thing they’re really upset about is the color of Obama’s skin. Although many progressives definitely have an agenda when they label Tea Partiers racist, it doesn’t change the fact that to many people racism is a logical explanation. What else makes sense of the aversion to Obama and his policies?
The Tea Party has, of course, celebrated some serious victories over the previous year beginning with Scott Brown and ending with the Democrats getting a firm shellacking in the mid-terms. But that sort of momentum won’t last forever, especially if the right refuses to come to terms with its own internal contradictions. If “big government” is only bad if Democrats do it, don’t expect to sustain much of a following. Eventually people will catch on to the ruse. Pawlenty is considered to be a possible Republican frontrunner. He’s likable, fairly charismatic, and a good speaker. Although he does have some skeletons in his political closet (some of his policies haven’t been exactly Tea Party material), he certainly has a better track record than Mitt Romney when it comes to his conservative credentials.
But defending the Bush-era is not the strategic way forward. Conservatives need to distance themselves from the mistakes of our 41st President and admit that he represents a blot on the conservative movement in America. The rhetoric of the Tea Party has definitely been moving in this direction, but the actual politicians themselves need to as well. When the newly elected Speaker of the House can’t list a single program he would cut, one seriously has to question the integrity of the supposed resurgence of conservative thought in this country.
The cold, harsh truth is that many in the conservative movement are hypocritical and inconsistent. I don’t for a moment believe the explanation is racism; the real explanation is simply a lack of critical thinking on the part of many in the conservative camp. People were blinded by party politics and went along unflinchingly with the largely statist agenda of the Bush administration. But now is the time to wake up. The first step towards putting together a true conservative movement has to start with distancing itself from what has passed for conservatism over the last few years.