'Rebel-in-Chief': Good Book, Bad Advice

Want to know what makes the President tick? Read Fred Barnes’ Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum, 2006). The star journalist-pundit for The Weekly Standard and Fox News shares fascinating tidbits about the President and tells readers precisely why he governs the way he does. Small-government conservatives will not be particularly pleased, nor will those who think the President is trying to implement a Utopian foreign policy. But many conservatives will remain convinced George W. Bush is pushing this country in the right direction on a flock of issues, from tax cuts to court appointments.

Barnes is clearly sympathetic with what the President is doing, but the great virtue of this book is that a first-rate journalist has given us some authoritative insights into the Bush presidency. There are lots of little things that should endear Bush to conservatives of virtually all stripes. He maintains his loathing of the "self-important" in the Washington establishment. He believes the national press corps is comprised of a group of "condescending know-it alls," in the mold of his fellow liberal students at Yale. He’s in sync with a huge number of Americans when lashing out at Jacque Chirac as an "a———."

Importance of Faith

Bush isn’t in the social whirl, doesn’t hang out at the Kennedy Center and goes to bed early. He doesn’t really enjoy the "glitterati," he told Barnes. He views Washington as a job site, commuting from his beloved ranch in Crawford. What especially colors Bush’s thinking, as the country knows, is his deep Christian faith. Barnes tells us he fortifies that faith by going through the entire Bible every other year (but he’s not a literalist or interested in "end times" scenarios) and by reading a daily devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, by the famous British preacher, Oswald Chambers.

Bush prays frequently during the day and meets often with Christian leaders such as Charles Colson of the Prison Fellowship and Rick Warren, author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life. His four most influential advisers — Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice "share his faith," Barnes informs us.

The hiring of Gerson, now a key writer and adviser, is instructive. Prior to their first meeting, Bush had been impressed not only by Gerson’s writing skills, but his evangelical background, including a degree from Wheaton College, the "Harvard of Christian colleges," as Barnes puts it. Bush informed Gerson that he had read his stuff, wanted him to work in the campaign and then write both his acceptance speech and his inaugural address. He sold Gerson on his most strongly held belief: That he was a compassionate conservative who wanted to give people hope. “That was exactly what I wanted to hear,” Gerson informed Barnes.

Barnes believes that Bush is in the conservative tradition, despite some jarring views the President brings to both foreign and domestic policy. Barnes reminds us of what we know and may have forgotten. Bush has given traditional and small-government conservatives — most often the same animal — a lot of what they favor: huge tax cuts, solid court appointments and a strong national defense. He has also pushed certain reforms — Health Savings Accounts (which have passed in a restricted form) and private accounts within Social Security (which were blocked last year) — that should not only reduce federal spending, but also promote the President’s vision of an ownership society.

Bush has been willing to act unilaterally in many instances, despite the high-decibel noise he was bound to hear from the bleachers. Bush was quite aware that the environmental lobby would go ballistic when he pulled out of the unratified Kyoto global-warming treaty, but he did so anyway, convinced that any problems could be resolved through technology.

(Bush avidly read Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, State of Fear, which uses scientific data to refute global-warming hysteria. When Crichton and Bush later met, they were in near total agreement. "The visit," says Barnes, "was not made public for fear of outraging environmentalists all the more.")

Still, most conservatives will be particularly disturbed by Barnes’ chapter, "The New Conservatism." They will think the President is far too soft on illegal immigration and will be puzzled, even alarmed, by his passionate effort to impose democracy globally, even when the outcome appears likely to result in the blossoming of terrorist states, as on the West Bank and in Iran. (Adolf Hitler, these critics note, rose to power through a democratic process.)

Abandoned Small Government

Barnes’ admission that Bush has virtually abandoned the idea of smaller government may be equally distressing. Measured by the old conservative yardstick, Bush is "not a small-government conservative," Barnes tells us. Citing George Will as a philosophical ally, Barnes lectures readers that it is a "fantasy" to believe the federal government will ever be "substantially reduced in size." "As Will suggested," Barnes explains, "the traditional measurement used to separate Democrats from Republicans — ‘big’ versus ‘small’ government — simply doesn’t work anymore."

But the truth is that George Bush’s presidency has suffered precisely because he has failed to listen to the small-government guys. Non-defense, non-homeland discretionary spending, as Heritage’s Brian Riedl tells us, will have increased at least 42% in Bush’s first six years in office, more than twice the increase during Clinton’s first six years.

Earmarks (i.e., congressional pork projects) have mushroomed during the Bush presidency from 6,333 to 13,999 — and Republicans are taking the heat because of them. Education spending at the federal level has doubled, with the political payoff extremely hard to detect. The largest expansion of Medicare in four decades has occurred with Bush leading the charge. And Bush is heading toward an historic first: the only President in over 120 years never to have vetoed a single bill. Is Barnes truly suggesting that this is the highway to a Republican Heaven?

Deficits and spending, alas, still matter to the financial markets, to the economists running the Federal Reserve system, to the domestic and foreign owners of U.S. debt and to the public at large. All sorts of normal Republicans you run into these days are sizzling mad that Bush may have tossed away the spending issue for the GOP.

What makes the case against the disciples of big government absolutely compelling is that Bush himself, in both the State of the Union Address and the 2007 budget, has sounded an al Qaeda-like alarm about the explosion of entitlement programs, which, unfortunately, Bush helped detonate with his three-quarters of a trillion dollar Medicare prescription drug bill.

Contrary to Barnes’ view, small-government conservatives — not those willing to surrender to the lures of the Leviathan — are the folks most likely to salvage the administration, the economy and the country. The small-government crowd Human Events admires — the policy wonks at CATO, Heritage and elsewhere — are relentlessly churning out inventive ways to downsize government. When Bush was tossing money around like confetti after the Katrina catastrophe, it took Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.), a highly regarded small-government conservative, to persuade the Congress to offset the promises with at least some spending cuts.

Health Savings Accounts, which the President is now touting as a way to control health-care spending, is a conservative, small (or at least smaller) government idea. The President’s resolution to partially privatize Social Security, in the form offered by the Ryan-Sununu bill last year, is another. Ryan-Sununu would dramatically reduce federal outlays, substantially lower the FICA tax on both employers and employees and increase U.S. savings.

This writer recalls when the common wisdom in Washington was that Gov. Ronald Reagan’s effort to reform welfare in California was a "fantasy" and that the welfare programs exploding throughout the nation would have to be federalized. Reagan’s plan saved California from bankruptcy. His reform ideas — embraced by the Republican Congress in the 1990s — dramatically shifted power from Washington to the states and led to a stunning decline in the welfare caseloads nationwide. Big-government conservatives should take note.