You always hurt the one you love
The one you shouldn’t hurt at all
You always take the sweetest rose
And crush it till the petals fall
You always break the kindest heart
With a hasty word you can’t recall
— Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher
Like the 1944 pop standard says, President George W. Bush has hurt the most all those he professed to love the most — from the conservative ideologues and born-again Christians to the free-market enthusiasts, energy producers and red state political class. Perhaps no politician in recent memory has done more damage to his political base.
The most obvious recent equivalent, Richard Nixon, did cause harm to the conservative cause, but that damage was short-lived. It reflected his deviousness more than his policies. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s many personality flaws weakened the Democrats’ hold on the White House, but inflicted no permanent harm to liberalism.
In contrast, the Katrina-scale disaster that has been the Bush presidency may leave his ideological backers in the wilderness for years to come. Over the past eight years, Bush has done more to undermine conservatism than all of the country’s college faculties, elite media and Hollywood studios put together.
The late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater — whose memory remains far more cherished than that of either President Bush — nurtured the modern brand of conservatism. Nixon employed some of these tenets, but they flourished most fully under Ronald Reagan.
Conservatism’s core values rested on notions of a strong national defense and free market economics. Bush has punctured these ideas in a way that transcends the effects of historically anomalous scandals such as Watergate or Clinton’s extramarital affairs. Bush has not only dinged the conservative car, he has totaled it.
Start with the great core issue of national defense. Arguably, Bush’s one success lies in his reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing lack of follow-up terrorist attacks on the homeland. Yet a series of other blunders, notably the war in Iraq, has blemished this enviable record.
Despite the great efforts of the military, particularly in recent years, to calm that rich but cantankerous country, it is hard to see how it has been worth the cost in life, treasure and international reputation.
The shoes thrown in Iraq and celebrated around the world epitomize not only ill manners but also the fact that even our supposed friends there don’t like us very much. If history is any guide, Iraq will end up as an authoritarian state with strong anti-American (as well as anti-Israel) leanings. The farther our sons and daughters get away from those ever-scowling people, the better most Americans will feel.
One unintended part of the Bush legacy will likely be a weaker, highly stressed military. The influential Democratic Netroots will be able to hound the military establishment — whatever President-elect Barack Obama’s intentions. Congress may be reluctant to commit troops to almost anything short of a Chinese invasion of San Francisco, which many Americans — and perhaps some progressive natives — might consider a blessing anyway. Support for new weapons systems, needed or not, will dissipate.
Bush’s legacy for the cause of free market capitalism may be even worse. Our first MBA-holding president has turned out to be the worst economic manager since Herbert Hoover.
The bailouts of Detroit and — much worse — the vile Wall Street profiteers now open the door to an unprecedented expansion of invasive welfarism throughout the economy. It’s hard to call proposals that build tennis courts in yuppie towns or subsidize performance artists in Flint, Mich., wasteful after the billions Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has lavished on his compadres in Richistan.
In the coming years, the only legitimate opposition to the bipartisan pro-Wall Street policy will come from the scruffy populists of both parties, many based in the heartland regions of the country. Bush may even make quasi-Marxism respectable again. Hearing about $20 billion in new bonuses for government-subsidized Wall Streeters this year should be enough to bring out the hidden Bolshevik in even rational people.
Ironically, the only people who should be thanking Bush — the environmentalists, the urban gentry, the welfare staters — are the very ones who have despised him the most. Now that he has helped put them in power, perhaps they could host a celebrity fundraiser for the new Bush library in Dallas. Serenaded by Barbra, scolded by St. Al, with a short film by Michael Moore, the program — hosted by Whoopi Goldberg — could help consecrate a lavish new sarcophagus that Bush has prepared for the conservative movement.
This article originally appeared at Politico. White House Photo by Paul Morse
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.