Texas Gov. George W. Bush can't be as anti-intellectual as he pretends. The guy makes a big show of being bored by policy tomes, of being unable to name small foreign countries, of his contempt for commentators and conceptualizers. But that frat-boy image is belied by the fact that over the past few months he has given a series of intelligent, substantive and potentially revolutionary campaign speeches. Either the presidential candidate has some smart people to build intellectual frameworks around his impulses, or he himself is a closet intellectual who maybe hasn't gotten fully in touch with his inner wonk.
The Bush campaign marches under the banner of "compassionate conservatism," which polls well with women and suburban Catholics. But the phrase that actually gets to the heart of Bushism is the one some Bushies use among themselves, "governing conservatism." That phrase highlights the dichotomy between two Republican mentalities--the governing mentality that Bush champions and the opposition mentality that afflicts many of the Washington Republicans who labor in Bill Clinton's shadow.
The politicians who are Bush's natural allies hold executive positions. They are governors such as Michigan's John Engler or New York's George Pataki, and mayors such as Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis and Rudolph Giuliani of New York. But the Republicans who have set the tone for the party on the national level over the past five years were formed by their decades in opposition. People such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and presidential candidate Steve Forbes are products of the conservative movement.
That movement began with the founding of the National Review in 1955; it cohered during the Barry Goldwater campaign. It finally triumphed with the elections of Ronald Reagan and confirmed its clout in 1994 when it ended 40 years of Democratic congressional rule. It was a movement founded in opposition. It was designed, as the first editorial in the National Review put it, to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop." It was intended to stop communism, stop socialism and stop liberalism. And it succeeded beyond its wildest imaginings, thus rendering enormous service to mankind. But the problem is that today, when communism is dead and liberalism is ailing (at least in national politics), many people atop the conservative movement are still stuck with this opposition mentality.
The core assumption of this mentality is that a powerful liberal elite dominates the levers of government power, the mainstream media, the universities and the culture. It is the conservatives' job to reduce this liberal elite's power so that regular Americans can lead the lives they choose. When opposition conservatives are elected to office, they are very clear on what they want to destroy or devolve power away from--the liberal power centers. But they are not so clear about positive ways to use government to actually do something good.
A classic example of how the opposition mentality is ill-suited to governance is the recurring conflict over the Department of Education. Opposition conservatives took control of Congress in 1995 vowing to eliminate the department, which they believe is stuffed to the rafters with liberals. But the general public doesn't think "liberal" when it thinks of the Department of Education; it thinks "education." So the Republicans lost that budget fight, and then, to get back in good graces with the public, they allocated more money to the Department of Education than even Clinton asked for; this year, the GOP's proposal exceeded the administration's by $340 million.
In opposition, vows to eliminate the department get the conservative think-tank audiences standing and applauding. But as a governing philosophy, such calls achieve worse than nothing. The most "radical" Republicans end up being the hapless enablers of big government. They are sheep in wolves' clothing.
The governing conservative mentality, meanwhile, shares some of the opposition conservative worldview. Governing conservatives agree that the cultural arbiters are generally hostile to conservative ideas. Giuliani, for example, doesn't act as if his social life depends on the approval of the New York Times. Engler doesn't wait for the Ford Foundation to endorse his welfare reform proposals. Bush isn't waiting for Rosie O'Donnell to embrace his ideas on gun ownership.
But there's a fundamental difference between governing conservatives and opposition conservatives: Governing conservatives do not believe that liberals dominate government. They do not believe that any program they set up will eventually be taken over by the left. They do not believe that conservative activism is just as objectionable as liberal activism.
Instead, they praise public service and government activism. "Too often, my party has confused the need for a limited government with a disdain for government itself," Bush said in a New York speech earlier this month. "Our founders rejected cynicism, and cultivated a noble love of country. That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government," he continued. Governing conservatives aim to restore faith in government, believing that, as the natural majority party, they can use it to conservative ends. This is a startling change of emphasis for the GOP. And Bush is not the only Republican candidate talking this way. His major challenger, John McCain, is also a governing conservative--in many respects an even more ambitious one. Meanwhile, the leading opposition conservative in the presidential race is Forbes, whose campaign is faltering despite his massive spending. The party is clearly being transformed.
In his speech in New York, Bush went on to say that his approach has "echoes in our history." He mentioned the policies of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt--the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, the Panama Canal and the national parks. These are all classic examples of limited but energetic Republican governance. Governing conservatives are reviving a political tradition that has been dormant for so long that its language seems to have been lost and its heroes forgotten.
When the Republican Party emerged from the Whig Party in the middle of the 19th century, it, too, believed in limited but energetic government. The men who served under Lincoln, such as William Pitt Fessenden, Salmon Chase and Justin Smith Morrill, pushed through a series of activist measures, not only the Homestead Act and the land grant colleges, but the Pacific Railway Act, the creation of the Department of Agriculture and a national currency.
This was not nanny-state liberal activism. It was activism designed to foster competition, to help Western farmers compete in the marketplace, to create a national, competitive economy. Its proponents did not share Thomas Jefferson's belief that the best government governs least. They were more Hamiltonian in their belief that government has a duty to undermine concentrated power, and so create a more open and dynamic country.
Competition is a big word in the governing conservative lexicon. Mayors Goldsmith and Giuliani have gone to extraordinary lengths to promote competition between everything from garbage collection companies to police precincts to schools. In this they are following in the spirit of T.R., who wrote, "The true function of the state as it interferes in social life, should be to make the chances of competition more even, not to abolish them."
Of course, conditions are different today. Alexander Hamilton was worried about the centralized power of the Southern caste system. T.R. was worried about the centralized power of the trusts. Today's governing conservatives tend to worry about the power of the sclerotic welfare state. They think it will take a period of conservative government activism to break up centralized state bureaucracies and entrenched interests.
Opposition conservatives tend not to believe in this sort of activism. On education policy, their mantra is that there is no federal role; Washington should just get out of the way. But Bush embraces education as a national issue: "The education bureaucracy is a national problem, requiring a national response. . . . Sometimes it takes the use of executive power to empower others," he says. He vows to redefine the federal role, but not eliminate it. In particular, he has proposed a Charter School Homestead Fund, an obvious echo of the Lincoln-era Homestead Act, to support $3 billion in loan guarantees to help cover the capital costs of new charter schools to compete with existing public schools. Bush intends to double the number of these independent public schools in his first two years in office.
Bush also believes the government has a role in setting standards and testing, so parents can measure the performance of their children's schools against neighboring schools. Many conservative education experts believe there should be national tests, because, in general, state tests are not as rigorous and do not give an accurate measure of achievement. Bush doesn't have the nerve to go that far, and has proposed a hybrid, national/state system that may yet prove unworkable. Still, his approach to education policy is a striking departure from recent GOP efforts. It's not just a midpoint between the slash-and-burn libertarianism of the '94 revolutionaries and the status-quo-hugging pseudo-reform of the Clinton administration. He is taking the old Republican style of government activism--dormant since T.R. left the scene--and applying it to 21st-century politics.
To be honest, it's a little odd to see Bush embracing such a substantive governing philosophy. His aides sometimes talk as if only money and contacts matter in politics; ideas are for saps. And his father's style often amounted to little more than mushy centrism. But so far, George W.'s proposals are impressive. His old country club buddies may call him the Bombastic Bushkin, but deep inside that good-time guy there may just be a political theorist trying to get out.
David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.