Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Donald Trump and George W. Bush

Matt Yglesias reminds us that while Donald Trump is no conservative, neither was the last Republican to win the White House:
Another person who enjoyed winning — at least in the sense of winning elections — was W, who recognized that a big problem with conservatism's philosophical commitment to small government was that it was unpopular.

  • When Democrats proposed expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs, Bush countered with a more expensive plan to cover prescription drugs, structured so as to be more profitable for pharmaceutical and health insurance companies.
  • When foreign competition threatened the American steel industry, Bush countered with tariffs to block foreign imports.
  • Bush signed a farm bill that "rained federal largess on farm-oriented states that will be campaign battlegrounds this fall, potentially helping Bush in his quest to win back control of the Senate for the GOP — and giving him a chance to rack up IOUs for his own 2004 re-election effort."
  • During his tenure, House Republicans actually bragged that "under the first two years of President Bush’s presidency, we will have seen greater increases in Title I funding [for K-12 schools] than in the previous seven years combined."
  • Bush expanded food stamp eligibility in 2002 and then did it again in 2008.
National Review's editors implicitly concede this when they write that "the Tea Party represented a revival of an understanding of American greatness in these terms [i.e., limited government], an understanding to which Trump is tone-deaf at best and implicitly hostile at worst." But the whole reason the spirit of limited government required a revival in 2009-'10 is that Bush didn't abide by it. In rejecting the spirit of the Tea Party, Trump is simply recapturing the spirit of a man who (like Trump, so far) was good at winning presidential elections.
Bush went out of his way not to offend Muslims, but in other ways his nationalism was just as cranky and extreme as Trump's. Remember Freedom Fries? All the attacks on John Kerry because he speaks good French? In sum:
The key continuity is that Trump realizes — in a way that neither Jeb nor Marco Rubio nor the Republican establishment writ large do — that nationalism rather than philosophical commitment to small government is at the core of conservative politics.
Obviously there are many flavors of conservatism, and I don't want to get involved in which is the true version. But I agree completely that Trump has picked up on many of W's winning themes, especially a hard-edged nationalism and a contempt for conservative doctrine when it gets in the way of winning elections.

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