Conservative action at the wrong time

September 10, 2001|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- I'm the last person who should be giving President Bush political advice.

As his father used to say to Jim Baker, "If you're so smart, why am I president?"

But Mr. Bush might want to study the parallels between himself and the former British Conservative Party leader, William Hague, who recently lost in a landslide to Tony Blair.

If politics were math, I would reduce my advice to this equation: George W. Bush won the presidency because he convinced enough swing voters that he would rule as "Clinton-minus." He would give them Clinton-like policies on key issues, which a majority of Americans favored, without Clinton the man.

That was what "compassionate conservative" was supposed to signal. But once in power, Mr. Bush has ruled not as "Clinton-minus" but as "Reagan-squared," not as a compassionate conservative but as a radical conservative.

Mr. Hague lost to Mr. Blair because what the British public wanted was "Thatcherism-plus." That is, while the British public had come to enjoy the benefits of the more market-oriented, American-like, lower-tax economy that Margaret Thatcher engineered, they now wanted more of the public services and welfare benefits that the French and Germans had.

Mr. Hague ignored all these signals. Instead of offering "Thatcherism-plus," he campaigned on a platform of "Thatcherism-squared" -- even smaller government, fewer services, and more free-market alternatives.

He got crushed. What the Bush and the Hague folks have in common is that they both misread the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions.

They both acted as though what accounted for Mr. Reagan's and Ms. Thatcher's successes was their strict allegiance to conservative ideology.

Wrong. What made Ms. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan popular was that they were each reforming failure -- they were each reforming the least popular and least successful aspects of the welfare state, while leaving intact the most popular.

So Ms. Thatcher broke the power of the labor unions, and privatized some industries, but under her rule the British government grew, and she left the biggest government agencies, like the National Health Service, unprivatized.

Mr. Reagan also took on the unions and cut taxes and reversed the image of America-the-weak. But he never shrank the size of the federal government, he produced record deficits and he engaged in sweeping arms control with the Russian Evil Empire.

"The people who came after [Mr. Reagan and Ms. Thatcher] suffer from the delusion that the key to their success was their loyalty to right-wing doctrines," noted a European diplomat.

"Actually, the key to their success was that they were great politicians who were reforming failing systems, and compromised all over the place."

Mr. Hague thought Brits wanted more Thatcherism, when they wanted to go beyond Thatcherism. Similarly, instead of giving Americans Clintonism minus Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush is giving them radical conservative policies on taxes and missile defense.

Was the U.S. economy so bad these past eight years that we needed a deep tax cut that has now put the whole budget out of whack?

Is America really threatened by rogue missiles so much that we need to immediately unravel every arms control treaty for an untested missile defense scheme?

It seems that American conservatives have never gotten over the end of the Cold War and our victory over Communism. They need a mission, which is admirable. Mr. Reagan had that missionary zeal, he had the conservative reform ideology to go with it and he had the context of failure at home and an Evil Empire abroad to justify and energize his mission.

The Bush people have all the missionary zeal of the Reaganites, but the context is completely different. For the country, context is everything. But for the Bushies, context is nothing.

Their theological beliefs are everything and what they believe must be good everywhere all the time. So they are giving us a great experiment in the radical reform of success -- a radical tax cut at a time when the U.S. economy was basically sound and the national debt on track to be eliminated, and a radical missile defense scheme to replace the deterrence doctrine that has maintained nuclear stability for 50 years.

I sure hope they know what they're doing.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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