The State of Conservative Government, 2006

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Tonight the President reports to the nation on the State of the Union. We will hear soaring rhetoric, powerful words, a President resolute and determined. We will hear of victories, progress, and pride. He will tell a compelling story – and very little of it will be true.

The truly compelling story of this decade is one that Bush doesn’t want told – the rapid and dramatic failure of conservative government. Finally in a position of virtually unchecked power after decades in the political wilderness, modern conservatives have failed quickly and utterly at the most basic responsibilities of governing, leaving our nation weaker and our people less prosperous, less safe and less free.

Seduced by the temptations of power, these movement ideologues also quickly came to believe that the rules of our democracy did not apply to them. The result is one of the farthest-reaching episodes of corruption and criminal investigations into a governing party in our history.

To fully appreciate the State of the Union, we need a deep understanding of the conservative movement and its rise to power. Jumpstarted a little more than fifty years ago by William F. Buckley’s National Review, the conservatives began their long march to power by investing billions of dollars in a modern infrastructure to combat the entrenched position of progressives in government. They used this infrastructure – think tanks, for-profit media, superior and innovative forms of electioneering – to defeat an aging progressive movement, and now have more power than at any time since the 1920s.

In recent years America has learned what life is like under a true conservative government. With near absolute power, conservatives have pursued their agenda with little compromise or input from progressives. The latest chapter of the great conservative story – the Bush years – may have been one of political victories, but it has also been one of disastrous governance. The broad and deep failures of the Bush government should cause all Americans to reappraise the virtue of this grand conservative experiment, recognizing that even after 50 years and untold billions of dollars, they have yet to come up with a true alternative to 20th century progressive government -- which did so much good, for so long.

A Review of the Bush Years

Let’s review what the last five years of conservative government has produced:

A middle class in retreat

Despite healthy gains in corporate profits, GDP and productivity, the current recovery has created far fewer jobs than any previous recovery in modern times. Moreover, real wages have continued to fall, and the average family is taking home less pay today than 5 years ago. Add to that surging costs for health care, college tuition and energy; count more in poverty, in bankruptcy and without health insurance; toss in the rapid deterioration of the American pension system; and recognize that Republican tax cuts targeted primarily at the rich have left the middle class carrying a greater share of the overall tax burden, and it becomes clear that the upshot of the conservative era is that the average American has to struggle harder than ever to get ahead.

A government that cannot pay its bills

In just five years, the conservatives have unraveled the Clinton administration’s achievement of putting America on a sound fiscal footing and creating the resources to tackle the coming costs of the retiring baby boom. The conservatives reduced revenues and increased spending more than any other administration in modern times. The results were predictable. America has the largest deficits in its history and trillions in additional long term debt. To fund the budget and trade deficits of conservative government, we now have to borrow close to a trillion dollars a year from Asian and Persian Gulf governments. This has left us dangerously ill-equipped to finance the looming retirement of the baby boom and has compromised our ability to tackle those new challenges that will inevitably emerge.

No safer today

Despite the muscular rhetoric of the 9/11 era and billions of dollars spent, the conservatives have been basically unable to recognize and organize around the new terrorist threat here at home. They ignored repeated warnings about Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. Despite two wars and billions of dollars spent on the War on Terror globally, Osama Bin Laden is still at large, and terrorism attacks worldwide have increased dramatically. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission just a few months ago gave the administration dismal grades for its efforts to protect the homeland, a result that was no surprise to everyone who watched the Department of Homeland Security’s dismal performance during and after Hurricane Katrina. Even some Republican senators, concluding that the Administration has upset the critical balance between liberty and security, have called for basic changes in the Patriot Act and early hearings on the new revelations about illegal wiretaps.

A foreign policy in ruins

However laudable the overall goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East, the Administration’s actual policies in Iraq have cost thousands of American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and much of our prestige and influence around the world. The White House began with a campaign to exaggerate the threat; it failed to rally the world to the cause; incredibly, it had no plans for the peace after our soldiers successfully defeated Saddam, opening the door to the bloody insurgency; it has chronically scrimped on both troop levels and supplies for our fighting forces; it has never found WMD’s – the stated cause for our entering Iraq; our torture techniques have violated the Geneva conventions and undermined America’s moral leadership in the world; our occupying presence in Iraq, like the Soviets in Afghanistan, has fueled the global jihadist movement; and in its efforts to defend its actions at home, the Administration has repeatedly lied (as in the finding late last year that Congress never had the same access to intelligence as the President) and smeared its critics. While all Americans hope for the best for the people of Iraq, the region itself, and for our troops, the cost, in both real terms and the opportunity costs, have been colossal – much greater than anyone could have reasonably expected when the conservatives began all this over three years ago.

Meanwhile, as we have struggled to achieve a successful outcome in Iraq, anti-American forces have gained power and momentum in both the Middle East and Latin America. The rise of Hamas, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hugo Chavez and his allies in our neighbors to the South all present America with a more hostile and complex global environment. Add to that the continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the administration’s weakening of global institutions, and it is a fair judgment that President Bush will leave behind a world more hostile and threatening to America and its interests than the one he inherited.

War on Hispanics

In one of the darkest moments of this new conservative era, in late 2005 the Republican House voted to felonize, arrest and deport the 11 million undocumented men, women and children working and living among us. While we all agree that our porous border presents a very significant national security challenge, these provisions of a large and ineffective bill constitute one of the most shameful, xenophobic and racist acts by our government in recent American history.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

In what may become the defining act of this conservative era, the leaders of the conservative movement in and out of government became corrupted on a scale unprecedented in recent American history. Criminal investigations are underway of people in the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Pentagon and other cabinet departments, the lobbying and advocacy community, and the private contractors in Iraq. One of the President’s senior advisors has been indicted for arguably treasonous activities, others are under investigation and another has been arrested and charged. A senior Republican operative was recently convicted of election-related felonies in New Hampshire. One Congressman, Duke Cunningham, is on his way to jail, as, it appears, are former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and several of his cronies. The Abramoff scandal now includes a known Mafia figure rubbing out one of his rivals, and a member of Congress speaking out against the murdered figure from the floor of the House.

The administration attempted to appoint a business associate of Abramoff’s to be the number two official at Justice, re-assigned a U.S. Attorney looking into Abramoff in 2002, just “promoted” the lead investigator into the Abramoff Affair, and overruled the recommendations of the Justice Department’s career Civil Rights staff on political cases in Texas and Georgia. Contracting in the Katrina rebuilding and Iraq reconstruction has been rife with fraud, abuse and bribery. Journalists here and in Iraq have been paid to toe the conservative movement’s line.

At a more esoteric and perhaps more pernicious level, modern conservatism has defined decency down. Lying is now so common that it often goes unreported, and smears of American war heroes like Senators John McCain, John Kerry and Max Cleland, as well as Congressman John Murtha, have become so standard as to illicit little outrage from the media. The corrosive “whatever it takes” tactics of modern conservatives have undermined the civility required to make democracy work.


Despite all of their bravado and political power, history will not be kind to today’s Republican leaders and the modern conservative movement. A reasonable first draft of history would catalogue how President Bush and his allies led us unprepared into Iraq, left the Middle East and Latin America more radicalized than they found it, were slow to recognize the danger of Katrina and seemingly abandoned the people of New Orleans to suffer, left sick seniors without their medicines, suppressed meaningful debate and action on a host of grave, global environmental challenges, allowed the average real incomes of Americans to fall by thousands of dollars without a response, knowingly violated the Geneva conventions and lied about it, fought to arrest and deport millions of people working quietly among us, pursued a fiscal strategy which added trillions of dollars to our children’s debt, under funded their signature education reform by tens of billions of dollars, received failing grades from the 9/11 Commission, illegally spied on American citizens, and arrogantly acted as if the rules of democracy and human decency didn’t apply to them.

As we reflect on the state of conservative government, let’s recognize what a quixotic and calamitous experiment this conservative movement has become. It may have been fifty years and tens of billions of dollars in the making, but it has been exposed as a politically potent but intellectually immature movement, one whose generations in the wilderness produced an ideology unprepared and uninterested in the real challenges of governing. Finally unleashed, this ivory-tower conservatism has collided with the realities of a complicated world and produced a government that has weakened America.

The next chapter in the story of conservatism has yet to be written. Will they learn from their mistakes, work with the Democrats, and fashion a bipartisan approach to our challenges? Or do they recede deeper into their fantasies, continue to wage war against all imagined enemies domestic and foreign, and continue down the current path of drift and decline? It is too early to tell how this next chapter will unfold. We all know which path would be best for America at this challenging time. We at NDN pledge to do everything we can to extend our hand to members of both parties interested in getting past these disappointing years, cleaning up the mess and working together to craft a better future for our nation.

As NDN has written in recent weeks, it is our hope that the sheer magnitude of the administration’s failures will enable responsible members of both parties to wrest control of our government from the conservative ideologues and begin the work of ushering in a more constructive era. NDN and its allies helped to produce successful government in the 1990s. We left the world at peace, the budget in surplus, and the country in unprecedented prosperity. Our hope is that as we lay out a better agenda for our great and good nation, we will begin with the one approach that worked so well in recent years – the governing approach of the modern Democratic Party.