What effect has President Bush had on the pro-life and pro-family cause? That question, quietly debated in social conservative circles for several years now, will likely receive more attention with the publication of The Leadership of George W. Bush: Con & Pro in the March issue of First Things.

FT editor Joseph Bottum takes the “con” position:

After six years of President Bush — thought by nearly every observer to be the most socially conservative president of recent decades — where does social conservatism stand? No one can deny there have been some bright spots: the defeat of the Democrats’ Senate leader Tom Daschle in 2004, the nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court in 2005, a few successful state referenda in 2006.

What isn’t so clear is what it all amounts to. The noise has been overwhelming since George W. Bush took office. Abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, public Christmas displays, same-sex marriage, pornography in the movies, faith-based initiatives, immigration, visible patriotism: We’ve been warned by the media, over and over again, that Republicans are reshaping America into a Puritan’s paradise. But, at the end of the day, the media mostly won and the Republicans mostly lost. Social conservatism is in little better shape now than it was when Bush was first elected. In many ways, it is in worse shape.

President Bush may have put the Supreme Court one vote shy of overturning Roe v. Wade–something his father and President Reagan did not do. But Bottum does not really dispute that. His critique runs deeper:

In all that he has tried to do-reform education, fix social security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges-Bush has proved himself a conservative. Of course, along the way, he has also proved himself hapless. The problem isn’t his lack of conservatism. The problem is his lack of competence.

Apart from the still not certain pro-life views of the two new Supreme Court justices, where is there a major success to which one can point?

I would answer that Bush held the line on stem cells. But Bottum anticipated that answer:

Stem cells are perhaps the exception, for there President Bush did indeed hold the conservative line. It is worth remembering, however, the way in which he did so: letting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research become a public crisis when quicker action would have kept it off center stage. By allowing it to boil over, the administration allowed its opponents to shift the focus off abortion, where the pro-life movement seemed to be gradually winning, and onto embryonic stem cells, where the nation has yet to be convinced. There’s a reason the word abortion was never spoken from the podium of the 2004 Democratic convention, while the phrase stem cells was trumpeted dozens of times. Correct action, even when strongly undertaken, is not the same thing as persuasive leadership.

Early in Bush’s presidency there were those who said he had reversed the normal Republican pattern on abortion: he was all action and no talk. Arguably, that strategy allowed the pro-life cause to advance by not alarming moderate pro-choicers. But the risk is that you cede the rhetorical field to your opponents who may succeed in reframing the debate in terms favorable to them–something Bottum apparently thinks has happened.

Bottum goes on for a bit about Iraq and the 2006 election and then there is this:

Domestically, a large range of conservatives will seem discredited by an American defeat in Iraq, which is why their liberal and radical opponents so quickly, and fecklessly, embraced the claim that Iraq is lost. On crime, abortion, education, government spending—the whole litany of domestic concerns-the American conservative movement may well find itself starting over, back once again where it was in 1974. The result will be perhaps most disheartening for social conservatives, as decades of intellectual and political gains against abortion are frustrated.

Bottum’s prediction for the nation’s near-future has some relevance for Connecticut’s recent past. It would be too much to say that because the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 Connecticut legalized same-sex unions in 2005. But there is no denying that an anti-Iraq War backlash played a powerful role at Connecticut polls in both 2004 and 2006–leading eventually to the defeat of two veteran Republican congressmen and the election of Democrat supermajorities in both houses of our legislature. Yes, Republican Rell and pro-war Lieberman are obvious exceptions to the wave that hit nearly everyone else, but the question remains: How different might our legislature be today if we had not invaded Iraq–or, rather, if the war had gone better? And how much further along would the pro-life and pro-family causes be–both in Connecticut and nationally?

These are questions that Bottum would put squarely on the shoulders of President Bush:

Conservatives voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because they expected him to be the opposite of Bill Clinton-and so, unfortunately, he has proved. Where Clinton seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle, Bush has been a man of principle and very little political competence.

Overall–and Connecticut excepted–I don’t agree with Bottum that social conservatism is worse off because Bush is president. Bush withstood enormous pressure to confirm Alito and Roberts–and to hold the line on stem cells. But–as even Michael Novak, who writes the “pro” response, says–many of Bottum’s criticisms have force. And that’s something Bottum would like conservatives to keep in mind as we head into 2008:

All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates should understand the task they face over the next two years. George Bush’s ideals have gotten him elected president twice, and his incompetence has finally delivered the Congress to his domestic opponents and empowered his nation’s enemies abroad. Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush’s principles—and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.

Our liberal opponents, as always, are welcome to post in this thread. But I am especially curious to know what our fellow Connecticut conservatives think of Bottum’s essay.

3 Responses to “George W. Bush and Social Conservatism”

  1. on 06 Mar 2007 at 2:29 pmBreacher

    Bush had the biggest pro-life opportunity of our time, and he watched it pass him by.

    He came in expressly telling religious people that he wanted to end abortion — but that you can’t do that directly. He was like Lincoln speaking wisdom to the abolitionists. They wanted too much too soon. Lincoln changed the country’s heart, then forced the end of slavery.

    Bush was going to give us Faith-Based Initiatives to change the country’s heart. He was going to build momentum to let us see people heping each other, reaching out to unwed mothers. At the same time, he was going to reach across the aisle — and did, to Ted Kennedy, with No Child Left Behind.

    He was going to be the compassionate uniter faith-based pragmatist.

    Well, he was compassionate and he was a uniter, but then two things happened:

    1. The Democrats spit vitriol in his face. They called him divisive and mean. They lied about Bush in ways that directly undermined his strategy. This is when we first saw a characteristic in Bush that we hoped was just a passing phase or something: He wouldn’t answer critics, he wouldn’t correct misinformation, he allowed gross mischaracterizations of facts to go unremarked on. Oops. Turns out that WASN’T a passing phase.

    2. 9/11 happened. Despite the Democratic haters, Bush had a country united, in love with helping each other, and cheering him on into Afghanistan. This was what he wanted all along. He was practically in the position Lincoln was in after his assassination, without having to be dead: Icon of faith and solidity in the wake of pain and tragedy. And, of course, with his deepest wish granted he gave us …

    … more faith-based iniatitives while everyone’s saying ‘God Bless America’ in public? Nah.

    …more reaching across the aisle and building coalitions while everyone’s hugging? Nah.

    … Calling America to rebuild the towers and rebuild the American spirit based on our founding principles, while everyone’s waving flags? Nah. No towers. No founding principles.

    What he gave us was Iraq.

    And he did it in the weirdest way ever, with weasel wording that left his claims open to multiple interpretations, insisting on going to the U.N. only to blow them off, insisting it was urgent to go in right away and then waiting for months and months, insisting that he wanted to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, but insisting it in such a public way that if I didn’t know better I’d have thought he WANTED terrorists to TAKE THE HINT and get the weapons NOW because RED FLAG! RED FLAG! we’re going to get them first, otherwise!!!

    After six years of this guy, the whole thing has gotten old.

    If the United States were an episode of Little House on the Prairie, he would be Nels Oleson; all the right ideas, respected and trusted, lovely demeanor, you want to love him, but he’s simply not willing to do the right thing at any crucial point.

    Bottum nailed it. Bush is hapless. His dad was expert at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Bush has turned defeat into a performance art.

    He saw the Social Security crisis with crystal clarity, then walked away from it. He saw what it took to have an impact on abortion, and didn’t do it. He saw what was needed to stablize the Mid-East (read his brilliant Second Inaugural!) and did the opposite.

  2. on 06 Mar 2007 at 7:42 pmTrueBlueCT

    Psst… Should we put Roe v. Wade to a national referendum? Cause last I check the majority of Americans are in favor of a woman’s right to choose….

    The GOP will never end abortion. It’s a sucker’s game, (Mitt Romney, 😉 😉 ….), simply b/c the electoral backlash would be tremendous. But hey, anything that gets poor and ignorant people to vote against their financial self-interest!

  3. on 07 Mar 2007 at 6:50 ammatt

    TBCT, they know the game – note their “ONE VOTE SHORT OF DEFEATING ROE V WADE” shtick. They’re going to get out the vote for the GOP presidential candidate no matter what. The “incompetence dodge” is necessary to lower the bar so they can claim that the NEXT Republican is going to succeed because they lack Bush’s personal failings.

    Psst, seven of nine were appointed by Republicans. You’re always going to be “one vote short.”

    Look, I respect where the FIC’s followers are coming from, and I think that so far as personal moral and health decisions, your stands are noble and decent (though obviously I don’t think those personal preferences or beliefs should be legislated for everyone.) But it’s time to face the facts: the Republicans, as they say, are just not that into you.

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