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Bush the Neoliberal

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Years ago, someone coined the term "neoliberal." I was never sure what it meant, and it has since fallen into disuse, but whatever the case, I'd like to revive (and mangle) the term and apply it -- brace yourself -- to George W. Bush. He's more liberal than you might think.

You recoil, I know. After all, the conventional wisdom is that Bush is the most conservative of all presidents, an advocate of limited government, minimal taxes and, when it comes to the quintessentially liberal concern with civil liberties, the man who gave us the twin black eyes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It's an appalling record.

But consider this: An overriding principle of conservatism is to limit the role and influence of the federal government. Nowhere is this truer than in education. For instance, there was a time when no group of Republicans could convene without passing a resolution calling for the abolition of the Education Department and turning the building -- I am extrapolating here -- into a museum of creationism.

Now, though, not only are such calls no longer heard, but Bush has extended the department's reach in a manner that Democrats could not have envisaged. I am referring, of course, to the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. I will spare you the act's details, but it pretty much tells the states to shape up or face a loss of federal funds. It is precisely the sort of law that conservatives predicted Washington would someday seek -- and it did.

Similarly, let's take a look at the much-mocked notion of diversity. Bill Clinton was widely berated for his effort to have an administration that looked like America -- women, African Americans, Hispanics, you name it. Whether by design or not, Bush has also managed that feat. A female education secretary is one thing, but a national security adviser -- the uber-macho post -- is something else, and that went first to Condi Rice. And over at Justice, Bush chose Alberto Gonzales, the son of Hispanic migrant workers and, incidentally, a lawyer with the singular gift of forgetting meetings he attended. (In private practice, did he forget to bill?)

I am not suggesting that any of these appointees -- including Bush's former White House counsel, Harriet Miers -- are what is pejoratively known as affirmative action hires. I am suggesting, though, that Bush has not only diversified his Cabinet and staff but obviously got enormous satisfaction in doing so. You only have to listen to Bush talk about the virtues of immigration -- another liberal sentiment -- or his frequent mention of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" to appreciate that the president is a sentimental softie, what was once dismissively called a "mushy-headed liberal."

Allow me to make the case that this is also true when it comes to Iraq. I acknowledge that the war is a catastrophic mistake and was incompetently managed. But if you don't think it was waged on behalf of oil or empire, then one reason for our involvement was an attempt to do some good -- rid the world of a really bad guy and make life better for Iraqis and others in the region. This "liberal" intent may have left Dick Cheney cold and found Don Rumsfeld indifferent, but it appealed to Bush and it showed in his rhetoric and body language. Contrast it to the position of the so-called foreign policy realists, exemplified by the first President Bush and his trusted foreign policy sidekick, Brent Scowcroft.

It was their decision -- cold realism at its best -- to end the Persian Gulf War with Saddam Hussein still in power and not to intervene when Hussein later decimated rebellious Shiites in the south. Realistic? Sure. But also sickening.

Bush's neoliberal instincts have come a cropper across the board. His appointees have too often been incompetent, and his well-intentioned education act is underfunded. But it is with Iraq that real and long-term damage has been done. For years to come, his war will be cited to smother any liberal impulse in American foreign policy -- to further discredit John F. Kennedy's vow to "pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty." We shall revert to this thing called "realism," which is heartless and cynical, no matter what its other virtues. The debacle of Iraq has cost us -- and others -- plenty in lives. But in the end, it will cost us our soul as well.

cohenr@washpost.com


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