George W, Richard Nixon, and Big Government Conservatism:

Conservative commentators David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Jonah Goldberg all condemn George W. Bush's embrace of big government conservatism and analogize his policies to those of Richard Nixon. Frum's piece is particularly interesting, given that he is a former Bush speechwriter and author of The Right Man, a laudatory book about W. By now, it is no secret that Bush has presided over a massive expansion of government, even if one sets aside the increase in defense spending since 9/11.

In addition to the parallels noted by Bartlett, Goldberg, and Frum, here are some additional similarities between Nixon's and Bush's records on big government:

1. Embrace of very broad theories of executive power. It was Nixon who famously said "when the president does it that means that it is not illegal." Bush has not gone quite that far, but he has come very close.

2. Rhetorical criticism of affirmative action coupled with tacit support of racial preferences at the level of actual policy.

3. Support for a massive expansion of the federal role in health care provision (Bush's medicare prescription drug bill; Nixon's proposal to institute national health insurance).

I do not think that W is personally venal and paranoid in the way that Nixon was, nor has his administration (at least so far) produced a scandal comparable to Watergate. But the similarities between their domestic policies are real and, to my mind, extremely disturbing.

In the posts cited above, Bartlett and Frum produce some strong arguments showing that Bush's big government policies might prove to be more lasting than Nixon's did (Goldberg is less pessimistic). They may well be right, but I note 3 countervailing factors:

1. The looming fiscal crisis of Medicare and Social Security, which Bush's policies have helped to exacerbate, might well force spending reductions, just as the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s and 90s forced reductions under Bill Clinton. The alternative of sudden massive tax increases is one that many politicians are likely to shy away from.

2. As the Bartlett, Frum, and Goldberg pieces themselves show, most conservatives have supported Bush's domestic policies (to the extent that they have done so at all), only because they were perceived as a political success. If, as seems likely, Bush's ratings continue to stay low and the Republicans suffer painful defeats in this fall's elections, this perception is likely to dissipate and small government conservatives may reassert themselves politically. Although we shouldn't overemphasize the significance of a single interview, Virginia Senator George Allen, a leading contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, has recently stated that he would bring a "libertarian sense" to the White House and distanced himself from Bush's domestic record.

3. With increasing affluence and technological advances, it has become more feasible to substitute private provision for a wide range of services previously provided by government. For example, this excellent recent book by Robert Nelson notes that some 18% of Americans (up from 1% in 1965) now live in private communities such as condominiums and homeowner associations that provide many or most of the services traditionally provided by local governments. Although the issues involved are complex, such privatization is likely to reduce support for the growth of government, at least at the margin.

Make no mistake - the growth of government is a very powerful trend, and Bush has done a great deal to exacerbate it. But we should not be too quick to assume that the trend is irreversible.

Update: Some commenters, and others, argue that conservatives have only begun to criticize Bush's domestic policies because he has become unpopular or only after the 2004 campaign. I think this is misleading. Many conservatives have been critical of Bush's spending spree all along, and this is certainly true of Bartlett and Goldberg (who has been skewering Bush's spending habits for a long time). See also this 2003 publication by the Heritage Foundation, probably the best-known conservative think tank. What is true is that Republican politicians (not the same group as conservative commentators, by any means) were mostly unwilling to criticize a president of their own party so long as his policies seemed to be a political success. Bush's recent political failures may lead them to change their tune, as George Allen's comments (quoted above) indicate.