Billionaire, reality TV star and possible 2012 presidential contender Donald Trump has been saying many things as of late, as his mix of Obama-bashing and Birtherism continue to excite a portion of the Republican base. But despite much silliness, Trump actually has said something vitally important: “George Bush gave us Barack Obama… If it weren’t for George Bush, we wouldn’t have Barack Obama. So I’m not thrilled with George Bush.”
For conservatives, this is unquestionably the most important message to remember heading into 2012.
While most conservatives will now admit to not being “thrilled” with Bush, not all of them are necessarily prepared to reject him and his legacy primarily because for eight long years the Right was completely immersed in defending his administration. Conservatives blindly defended arguably the biggest big government Republican president in history because they were so wrapped up in also blindly defending arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in American history—the Iraq War. Bush told us he was a “compassionate conservative.” We now know he was not conservative in any tangible sense, compassionate or otherwise. Bush also told us Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States, that Iraq was complicit in 9/11 and sold his war accordingly. Thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and an almost decade-long war later, we now know none of this was true. Indeed, to still say that Iraq was “worth it,” is to say that virtually any war our government concocts would be “worth it” too.
Still, too many conservatives, whether out of ignorance, embarrassment or both, are not willing to admit these glaring truths. Take for example bestselling author and nationally syndicated talk radio host Mark Levin. Lately, Levin has rightly and effectively been denouncing Trump for his many past liberal positions, questionable political associations with the likes of Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer among others, not to mention additional hypocrisies. Levin wants his conservative audience to see Trump for who he really is, and understandably so.
But part of Levin’s critique of Trump shows the radio host for who he really is: “Chump’ was calling Bush ‘evil’ and demanded his impeachment because of the Iraq war and in the middle of that war. He said Bush lied to get us into Iraq. His comments were vile and outrageous, not unlike the America-hating leftists who sought to undermine our armed forces there… Chump attacked Bush over Iraq because if you were a big-mouth, attention-seeking liberal, it was the thing to do.”
If Levin believes opposing the Iraq War and being critical of Bush was the liberal “thing to do,” it follows that defending that war and the president who waged it was the conservative “thing to do,” and for most of the Right it undoubtedly was. But just because something is the “thing to do,” does this make it the right (or Right) thing to do? Is part of being a conservative simply to follow the crowd, stick your head in the sand and never admit mistakes?
Blindly following Bush and supporting his war was not the “thing to do” for all conservatives. When Pat Buchanan helped found The American Conservative magazine in 2002—to which, in full disclosure, I am a contributor—it was primarily to give voice to conservative opposition to the Iraq War. Along with Robert Novak, Ron Paul and a minority of other notable conservatives, Buchanan and his magazine declared loudly that invading Iraq was a bad idea, the administration’s reasons for war were questionable at best, and to believe the conflict would be a “cakewalk” lasting only a “few weeks” was naïve. Many conservatives at that time—like Levin—thought asking such questions undermined our troops while The American Conservative insisted that “supporting the troops” necessarily meant questioning any administration that might put them in harm’s way.
In contrast to The American Conservative, the much older and established conservative publication National Review—to which Levin is a frequent contributor—came out in strong support of Bush and the Iraq war. But that magazine’s founder, the late William F. Buckley would say in 2006: “One cannot doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed.” On Bush’s foreign policy performance Buckley said “If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” Buckley would add, “I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology… with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending… And in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge… There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush.”
In 2006, Buckley discounted Bush’s conservative credentials, declared the Iraq war a failure and even suggested that the president’s performance made him unworthy of his office. Did the National Review founder say this as an “America-hating leftist” who wanted to “undermine our armed forces” because it was the liberal “thing to do?” Or was he simply a conservative willing to reflect on the obviously tragic situation at hand?
So long as conservatives still defend Bush and his legacy, even if Obama is defeated in 2012, we can expect a Republican Party that will also remain just as tolerant of big government at home and probably—again—in the name of implementing big government abroad, no matter how expensive or foolish it becomes. Dismantling big government in a manner in line with what the Tea Party now demands necessarily means rejecting Obama and Bush—including their wars, of which we can no longer afford and increasingly make less sense. It’s not hard to imagine what Buckley would think today of Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan and Libya. Even as a minority voice on the Right, The American Conservative has said opposing these mindless foreign interventions is the conservative “thing to do” since the very beginning.
So who was right about Bush? The American Conservative or National Review? Was William F. Buckley a liberal for denouncing Bush and the Iraq War? Is Mark Levin a conservative for defending both? Donald Trump is absolutely right that a President Obama would not have been possible without Bush—Obama would not be able to triple the size of government if Bush hadn’t first doubled it, and Obama would be less able to rationalize preventive wars if Bush hadn’t given him the blueprint.
In recognizing these self-evident truths, it should be remembered that Mark Levin is absolutely right when he says that Donald Trump is not a conservative. But neither is anyone who still defends George W. Bush.