Neither of these moves were particularly non-conservative, unless you come from Mr Larison’s emphatically anti-federalist branch of conservatism: NCLB is based on a traditionally conservative emphasis on test scores and teaching “the basics”, while Medicare Part D was a massive government giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. Most conservatives themselves didn’t see them as non-conservative until Mr Bush became unpopular in 2006 and the self-serving narrative began to coalesce that his failure was due to insufficient ideological purity.
Yes, the turn against Bush after 2006 was self-serving: movement conservatives were trying to extricate the movement from its deep complicity in the failures of the Bush administration. Naturally, many movement conservatives gave this an ideological spin, which doesn’t mean that their support for or acquiescence to earlier Bush administration policies proves the conservatism of those policies. The self-serving narrative was a way of claiming that movement conservatives had somehow managed to remain principled and conservative while the Republicans they supported had gone astray. It’s closer to the truth to say that the Bush administration pushed through un-conservative policies, and most movement conservatives weren’t terribly concerned about the substance of the policies so much as they were interested in keeping their side in power and winning elections.
If we take conservative arguments about the size and role of government even remotely seriously, a large increase in the government’s unfunded liabilities to expand a federal entitlement is not a conservative policy. If there is any substance to conservative complaints about cronyism and collusion between government and corporations, engaging in a “massive giveaway” to certain corporations is hardly a redeeming feature of the policy. A major intrusion of the federal government into an area previously reserved to the states and localities is obviously not a conservative policy. Among other things, it offends against principles of local control and subsidiarity. I suppose one could claim that support for centralized regulation and fiscally irresponsible corporatism are conservative, but I think one would be hard-pressed to find many self-styled conservatives eager to identify themselves with either of these things.
Perhaps it’s fruitless to try to characterize the policies of the Bush administration in these terms, but I think Steinglass’ observation supports what I was saying before. What Steinglass is really saying here is that most conservatives (like most Republican voters generally) weren’t terribly concerned about the content of Bush’s domestic policy. The GOP was a party in which it was commonplace to advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education in 1999 and 2000, and Bush pushed for a vastly increased federal role in education. Even though these policies were far from what conservatives actually wanted, the substance of his domestic policies did not alienate them, perhaps because many of them don’t care about policy substance and perhaps because other things (e.g., wartime nationalism, deference to the executive branch, post-9/11 solidarity, partisanship, etc.) made them supportive of Bush in spite of these policies. Whatever the reason, Bush could increase the size of the welfare state more than any President since LBJ, and most self-styled conservatives rallied behind his re-election anyway.