Last week Kevin Drum wrote a post saying that the conservatives have not been doing a very good job of enacting their agenda.
Ross Douthat writes today that conservatism hasn't accomplished much since taking over the country four years ago (or 10 years or 25 years ago depending on how you count). You know what? Despite all the griping that liberals do about George Bush, Ross is right. Here's a quick recap of the major legislative and executive actions of Bush's first term:
- No Child Left Behind
- Some big tax cuts
- Big spending increases, both in defense and nondefense spending
- The stem cell straddle
- Patriot Act
- Invasion of Afghanistan
- Department of Homeland Security
- Invasion of Iraq
- Medicare prescription bill
- Some conservative judges
Of these, some are just plain liberal (3, 7, 8, 11), some were basically neutral or bipartisan (1, 5, 6, 9), and only a couple are clearly conservative (2, 12). Of the remaining two items, the stem cell straddle was....a straddle, and if the Iraq war is a conservative cause, it's only because George Bush is fighting it. Outside of PNAC circles, conservatives have not exactly been baying for more foreign wars over the past decade.
The fact is, conservatives haven't won much of anything in the last 10 years except a PR triumph. Their biggest successes have been on taxes - a Pyrrhic victory at best without corresponding spending cuts - and in the court system, which hasn't actually delivered much real world benefit. Plus they have a war in Iraq, for whatever that's worth. Public opinion simply hasn't allowed them anything more.
Conservatives since Reagan have managed to slow down the march of liberalism - something that was probably inevitable after the 60s anyway - but PR triumphalism aside, that's about it.
There are a few problems with his list, the most glaring to me being his implication that spending (point 3), for it's own sake, is a liberal goal. The other big flaw being that he conflates liberal and Democratic; just because Democrats voted for some of these bills doesn't make them liberal (point 1). He also neglected to mention the various anti-progressive "reforms"-tort and bankruptcy--that the conservatives have passed. But leaving aside such quibbles, his main point just sounds wrong. Though I can't dispute the broader line of argument that his list seems to make, I know in my gut that the conservatives are making progress.
It took me a few moments to realize why my empirical gut feeling was so at odds with his simple list of evidence. You're probably ahead of me here. The majority of the advances of the conservative agenda have not been achieved through the legislative process. The legislative process is open to public scrutiny and it requires compromise. The Bush administration prefers to operate by administrative fiat under a veil of secrecy.
Some of the most enduring damage that the Bush administration has inflicted on us has been in the form of dismantling a century's worth of regulatory machinery and in reversing a half-century of international law and cooperation. They didn't need to pass a bill through congress to stop enforcing environmental regulations. To have attempted to do so would have drawn attention of a public that, for the most part, wants environmental protections. They didn't have a public debate in congress over torture and holding suspending rights for a whole class of prisoners, they simply had someone at the Justice Department write an opinion saying that the president can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. While the Senate has to be involved in ratifying treaties, the president can repudiate treaties on his own. When Cheney developed a new energy policy for the country, he was willing to fight to the death to keep the public and congress from finding out who he turned to for advice.
This administration has shown itself remarkably adept at leveraging the power of the executive, not only to achieve change without compromise, but to hide their actions from the public eye. It is no coincidence that two of the names that most frequently show up on lists of possible high court appointees are Ted Olsen and Roberto Gonzales, zealous defenders of the unlimited power of the executive branch and of the right of the executive to operate in secrecy.
The conservative agenda is not being advanced in the light of day. Instead, they operate best in the dark, like chicken thieves and assassins*. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of open government, international cooperation, and the progressive regulatory function of the federal government. Even before 9/11, the attempts by the Bush administration to dismantle treaties and the regulatory system made my skin crawl. My skin hasn't stopped crawling since.
* It's just a coincidence that the propaganda arm of the conservative movement is named after that best known of chicken assassins, the fox.