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Win or lose, the president has remade the politics of the right.
We still have to wait another few days to discover whether George W. Bush will stay in the White House. But we already know that his presidency has been momentous--two terms rolled into one, by any decent reckoning. He has not only transformed American policy. He has also transformed American conservatism.
Mr. Bush's critics like to accuse him of taking partisanship to new depths--of governing solely on behalf of the 40% of Americans who call themselves "conservative." An exaggeration, perhaps. But there is no doubt that he has taken the old injunction about "dancing with the one that brung you" to heart. No Republican president has devoted so much attention to this "right nation" within America. And no president has delivered so much red meat to the various factions within the conservative coalition.
Yet Mr. Bush has done more than just pay court to the right. He has actively changed it. The past four years have arguably brought more dramatic changes to conservative America than to America as a whole--to the way that it thinks and is organized, and to the ranking of the groups within it. The right has been in the driving seat, but it has not been a comfortable ride.
The most surprising change has been the rise of "big government conservatism." Ever since the Goldwater campaign of 1963-64, conservatism has defined itself as an antigovernment creed. Barry Goldwater proclaimed that he had little interest in reforming government, "for I mean to reduce its size." Ronald Reagan proclaimed that "government is the problem, not the solution." The Republican Class of '94 believed that "government is dumb while markets are smart" (to borrow a phrase from Dick Armey)--and set about balancing the budget and cutting popular government programs.
But Mr. Bush has been different: an avowed conservative who is nevertheless willing to embrace big government. The massive growth in the state during this presidency (faster than under Bill Clinton, even if you exclude the spending on the war on terror) owes a fair amount to opportunism--to Mr. Bush's willingness to pay off friends in the business world or a refusal to pick a fight with allies in GOP-controlled Congress (he has not wielded his veto pen once). But at its heart it is a deliberate strategy. He came to office planning to expand the Department of Education (an institution the Gingrichistas had planned to abolish). And he laced his acceptance speech at the GOP convention with promises to use government to improve people's lives.
Is this, as many conservatives fear, a move to the left? Mr. Bush was certainly worried by the way that Gingrich Republicanism had apparently alienated suburban Americans. But he is no Nixon, flying in Harvard professors to fine-tune the Great Society. He has had a more ambitious aim: to turn government into an agent of conservative values. Hence the emphasis on choice and accountability to force public-sector bureaucracies to act more like the private sector. And hence the enthusiasm for using government departments to promote conservative values such as sexual abstinence and responsible fatherhood. Before Mr. Bush, conservatives had assumed that the only way to win the battle against what Michael Barone has dubbed "soft America" was to shrink government. Mr. Bush has pioneered a different strategy--to "harden" government itself.
Mr. Bush's position in the culture wars is much easier to categorize than his position on big government: He has shifted power dramatically in favor of social conservatives. Modern American conservatism has been based around a coalition of antigovernment libertarians (many of them based in the West) and social conservatives (many based in the South). Reagan did a virtuoso job of keeping both sides happy, giving the social conservatives just enough to keep them on side, but never so much that he risked alienating the libertarians (who always suspected that a divorced actor was one of them). In his first term, Mr. Bush has tilted in the direction of social conservatives. Wherever you look--stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion rights or drug policy--he is joined with the religious right.
This may make short-term political sense. A quarter of voters are born-again Christians--and Karl Rove blames his boss's failure to win a resounding victory in 2000 on the failure of four million of these voters to turn up at the polls. But Mr. Bush plainly is also worried about the effects: Both the stem-cell decision and the constitutional amendment on gay marriage came about only after a great deal of angst in the White House. Both weaken the GOP in socially liberal states such as Reagan's California (where Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship only because he managed to avoid the primary process). The stem-cell decision gives the impression that the GOP is opposed to science, not to mention the Reagan family. And it risks giving too much power to a clique of aging culture warriors. Gay unions may be an obvious evil to the likes of Paul Weyrich and James Dobson; but younger evangelicals are torn on the issue.
Which brings us to what is Mr. Bush's boldest contribution to reinventing conservatism--foreign policy. It is easy to find parallels between his foreign policy and Reagan's. The latter married American power and American principle (particularly the onward march of freedom). He believed in calling evil by its proper name. And he endured criticism that he was a naÃ¯ve Wilsonian rather than a sensible conservative realist. In some ways Mr. Bush's battle against "the axis of evil" is a logical continuation of Reagan's against "the evil empire."
But these continuities should not blind conservatives to the radicalism of America's post-Sept. 11 foreign policy. First, remember that Reagan's foreign policy was, at the time, a radical departure from older conservative traditions such as America-firstism and Kissingerian realism. Then add the fact that the Bush foreign policy has been far more ambitious than Reagan's was. Turning to the neoconservatives, Mr. Bush has applied his doctrine of spreading democracy to an area of the world where the Reaganites feared to tread. Baghdad is not Warsaw; Ayatollah Sistani is not Lech Walesa. Mr. Bush has also taken his ideas much further than Reagan. Within a few months of the declaration of the "Bush doctrine"--those who harbor terrorists will be treated as terrorists--American tanks were rolling into Baghdad.
From Sept. 11 till the Iraq invasion, most conservatives expected that the war on terror would hold their movement together. The "axis of evil" would fit into the slot vacated by "the evil empire." And the conservative foot soldiers would put aside their differences--particularly over government spending--in a common war against Islamist extremism.
There are still times when that theory holds--the GOP convention was a masterly exposition of this unifying credo--but as Iraq gets ever messier, the noises off-stage grow louder. Conservatives as diverse as William F. Buckley and Pat Robertson have started to air their doubts. That clamor would become deafening if the Republicans lose the presidency on Nov. 2, with the neoconservatives the main target of the movement's wrath. But even if Mr. Bush wins, the neoconservative dream at its most fanciful is surely over. The neocons will remain; they are too clever and too prominent on Washington's rive droite to disappear. But the main question will be which representatives of other conservative foreign-policy traditions--particularly realism--will be able to re-establish influence.
The result is a paradox: A president who has devoted his energies to governing on behalf of conservative America and who is regarded by many on the right as being the most conservative person to ever reach the White House has ended up creating deep divisions on the right. Big-government conservatism has alienated influential small-government activists; you can even find prominent Washington libertarians saying that they would rather have a Massachusetts liberal with no legislative record to his name in the White House than a Texas Republican who has managed to expand both education and Medicare. Social conservatism has alienated the party's Western wing. And the Iraq War has reinforced doubts among all sorts of conservatives that Bush's Reaganism has shaded into Wilsonian liberalism--one that ignores conservative insights into both the difficulty of implanting democracy in hostile soil and the dangers of stirring up fanaticism.
Yet there is one area where Mr. Bush has exceeded the expectations of everybody on the right--party building. He is arguably the greatest Republican party builder since William McKinley. Presidents always have a temptation to put themselves above their parties. Thus Nixon pursued a policy of "lonely victory" in 1972 and Mr. Clinton "triangulated" between the House conservatives and his own party's liberal wing. Mr. Bush has eschewed this temptation.
He put the full credibility of the post-Sept. 11 White House on the line when he campaigned for his fellow Republicans in 2002--an election that ended with a GOP majority in the Senate. The White House has also paid enormous attention to building an organization to get out the vote, with a captain in every precinct and volunteers in every county. Mr. Bush has done nothing less than reinvent the party machine for the world of far-flung suburbs and exurbs.
This may sound technical, rather than ideological. But the triumph of Bushism--or whatever you want to call this unusual brand of conservatism--will depend not so much on its intellectual coherence as on the success of his party building. If the GOP's political machine puts Mr. Bush back into the White House on Nov. 2, he could be on his way to creating a new kind of big-government Republicanism; and if the machine fails, conservatism will once again be reinvented. Not for the first time, momentous ideas will play second fiddle to the more mundane question of getting people to the polls in the suburbs of Cincinnati and Toledo.
Messrs. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, of The Economist, are the authors of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" (Penguin, 2004). This is part of an occasional series.