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Karl Rove is no conservative, as his memoir shows

By Craig Shirley and Donald Devine
Sunday, April 4, 2010; B05

Karl Rove's book, "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight," has relaunched much debate about key moments of the George W. Bush presidency, such as the decision to go to war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Antiwar protesters even heckled Rove off the stage at a Beverly Hills book signing event recently, calling him a war criminal and trying to handcuff him. For many conservatives, though, the trouble with the book is simpler. Rove has written an exciting memoir and, when it comes to his childhood, even an endearing one, but we believe it makes at least one misleading statement -- and it's in the subtitle.

It comes as a surprise to many of us on the right who have known him over the years that Rove describes himself as a "conservative." A compassionate conservative? Sure. A big-government conservative? No doubt. But a conservative, pure and simple? Now that's a real revelation.

From William F. Buckley Jr. to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, the creators of the modern conservative movement always taught that excessive concentration of power in government leads inevitably to corruption and the diminution of personal freedoms. But while Rove credits these leaders for shaping his early political views -- "at the age of thirteen, I was wild for Barry Goldwater," he writes -- he did not pursue their values while in the White House. To the contrary, as the chief political architect of the Bush presidency, Rove was instrumental in directing an administration most notable for its enormous expansion of national government.

Throughout his memoir, Rove is partial to "compassionate conservatism" -- the phrase made famous during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign -- and describes the "four big foundations" of the idea as "education reform, the faith-based initiative, a generous middle-class tax cut and Social Security and Medicare reform."

Consider that list. Bush's tax cut was, certainly, basic conservatism in action, yet even President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, did as much. And the faith-based initiative mainly allowed religious groups to compete equally with other groups seeking federal grants -- commendable, but still merely leveling the playing field for access to government largesse, and an initiative in keeping with the principles of Jimmy Carter.

The truly unique aspects of Bush and Rove's compassionate conservatism were in the arenas of education and entitlements. The goals of Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative were certainly worthy, but its trampling of states' rights sounded early alarms for traditional conservatives. And Bush's market-oriented proposals for Social Security reform notwithstanding, the Medicare prescription drug benefit the president signed into law in 2003 has created an unfunded liability of $9.4 trillion over the next 75 years, according to the 2009 report from the Medicare trustees. This is far beyond what the White House estimated would be saved with Social Security reform, and the first new major entitlement since the days of Lyndon Johnson.

And we all remember steel tariffs, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, a massive agricultural subsidy bill, and other spending and regulatory moves by the Bush administration that tilted power toward Washington and away from individuals and states.

In his memoir, Rove defends the Bush record as a truly conservative one. "Some on the right argue that by putting the word compassionate in front of conservatism, George W. Bush somehow diminished the principles that have animated the conservative movement since at least the rise of Barry Goldwater in 1964," he writes. "This wasn't my sense of it at all. Bush is among the most conservative presidents of the modern age. Just look at his tax cuts, pro-life and pro-family stands; his support of free trade and reducing regulation; his belief that competition improves health care, the environment and Social Security; and his insistence on education results."

But the results speak otherwise. In total, Bush increased federal spending on domestic programs more than any president since Richard Nixon, easily surpassing Bill Clinton, Carter and his own father, so much so that by 2008, America had two big-government parties. Rove writes that as a teenager he carried around a paperback copy of Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative," but he should have heeded the book's first few pages, in which Goldwater warned against hyphenated conservatism.

The Bush administration's move toward big government was not gradual, either; it was signaled during then-Gov. Bush's campaign. In 1999, the journalist Tucker Carlson interviewed Bush in Austin and asked him if he was a small-government conservative. Mr. Bush replied no; he said he was an "efficient-government conservative." Bush's campaign rarely called for spending cuts of any kind and even opposed eliminating the Department of Energy, whose abolition had been in every GOP platform since 1980.

Bush was not the first Republican president to claim the conservative mantle yet merrily grow the size of government; Nixon and Gerald Ford did much the same. Rove and Bush are heirs to a brand of Republicanism rooted in a Tory-style, top-down defense of the status quo. It is not modern conservatism, not the brand that today is finding voice in the "tea party" movement, and certainly not the populist conservatism that found electoral success beginning in the late 1970s.

Modern American conservatism has roots in the ideas of philosopher John Locke, the founding fathers and the notion that humans' natural state is freedom. This thinking later fused into a modern political movement with Buckley, who also championed the idea that that liberty is God-given, thus broadening the movement's appeal to social conservatives. Over time, American conservatism evolved into a well-defined political movement that is anti-status quo, opposed to excessive government, populist and pro-individual.

As he prepared to deliver a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2008, Bush made clear his feelings about traditional conservatism. According to a memoir by former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer, the president was unhappy about references to the conservative "movement" in the draft of the speech. "Take out all this movement stuff," the president said. "There is no movement."

And Rove reveals his true heroes in his memoir, when we learn that he decorated his White House office with memorabilia of progressive Teddy Roosevelt and pragmatist William McKinley.

After losing control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections (when post-vote polls showed that about 60 percent of Americans thought the Republicans were the party of big government) and the presidential contest in 2008 (when nearly 20 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Obama), the GOP is suffering from an identity crisis, an inevitable legacy of big-government Republicanism. The party's problems are complicated by its good manners; Republicans do not wish to upbraid Bush and Rove for leading the GOP and conservatism astray. People such as Glenn Beck and Mark Levin who have even mildly criticized the spending and excesses wrought by Republicans have been churlishly attacked by defenders of the era.

The astonishing concentration of power in Washington today has created a huge opportunity for conservatives and the GOP. With President Obama's policies of big government, big bailouts, big banks and big bureaucracy, the Democratic Party has jettisoned the working men and women of America, who are increasingly coming to reject being ruled by one corrupt city along the Potomac. They want to be governed by themselves in their communities, their localities and their states, in a 21st-century version of the founders' federalism.

But thanks in part to their recent big-government legacy, Republicans have been slow to seize this opportunity. In his concluding passages, Rove concedes that Bush "went deep into Democratic territory to show how government can use the tools of capitalism to soften its rough justice" -- an admission that neglects state, local and individual alternatives to creating a just society, and that confirms our worst fears about hyphenated conservatism.

Recently, President Obama visited a bookstore in Iowa and joked that he was there to purchase Rove's memoir. Conservatives can only hope it was not to get any more ideas on how to expand government.

cshirley@sbpublicaffairs.com

ddevine@conservative.org

Craig Shirley is the author of "Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America" and the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. Donald Devine, who served as Reagan's first director of the Office of Personnel Management, is a vice chairman of the American Conservative Union.

From the archives: Recent Outlook coverage on the conservative movement includes Marjorie Dannenfelser's "What the Republicans aren't saying" (March 14) and Steven F. Hayward's "Is conservatism brain-dead?" (Oct. 4).

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