October 28, 2005
Defending his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court,
President Bush said, “I know her well enough to be able
to say that she shares my philosophy.” And what philosophy
would that be?
presidents, Bush has not thought a lot about his “judicial
philosophy.” A judge should “strictly apply the Constitution
and laws of the United States, and not legislate from the bench,”
he explained, in words almost identical to those of the last four
Republican presidents—who lived to regret many of their
nominees to the Court. Introducing Miers to the nation, Bush devoted
16 words to her view of the judiciary, and 45 to her charity work.
philosophy,” of course, is not necessarily the same thing
as a constitutional philosophy, an appreciation of the Constitution
and its principles. In his First Inaugural Address, Bush saluted
the four C’s of “civility, courage, compassion, and
character,” but he never mentioned the Constitution. This
was ungrateful, considering that he had just won his office by
virtue of the Electoral College, not to mention the Supreme Court’s
timely aid in fighting Hurricane Chad. But the omission confirmed
Bush’s resolute focus on compassion, and his willingness
to overlook the constitutional case for limited government.
Bush’s First Inaugural with Ronald Reagan’s. “In
this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem;
government is the problem….It is time to check and reverse
the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond
the consent of the governed,” Reagan declared. Though he
made progress, the Gipper didn’t succeed as he had hoped;
but at least he tried. The closest Bush came to an embrace of
limited government was the tepid reminder: “Compassion is
the work of a nation, not just a government.”
conservatism is the President’s self-proclaimed philosophy.
This term proves the old admonition that the adjective is the
enemy of the noun. Conservatism defends “liberty and justice
for all,” meaning that there are limits to what government
can do to, and for, us. But a compassionate government cannot
be a limited one. Its swelling sympathy will overwhelm the levees
of individualism and consent (“I feel your pain,”
whether you want me to or not); and its pity implies that for
some unfortunate people, justice is not enough. This inherent
indiscipline is why compassion used to be regarded as needing
reason’s regulation, and why in any event it was thought
better suited to private, not public, life. Compassionate conservatism,
therefore, means big government conservatism. And big government
conservatism is no conservatism at all.
Bush thinks of himself as a conservative, and there is something
about him that fits the bill, intermittently. He has cut taxes,
defended the nation against its enemies, and appointed good judges
to the federal courts. More than that, he has championed bold
policies like health savings accounts and Social Security reform.
He’s willing to gamble on big ideas that aim at reformation,
especially of individual character (the goal of the “ownership
society”). He is not so comfortable with ideas in the sense
of principles or theories, especially if these interfere with
compassionate action. If people are hurting, he thinks government
has to “move.”
exception to his aversion to abstract theory is his foreign policy,
which aims at global democracy based on the natural rights of
man. Yet for Bush natural rights seem to be mainly for export,
not for domestic consumption; they point to a government more
limited than he prefers. No consideration of natural rights has
ever prevented his administration from scratching one of its compassionate
itches, whether affirmative action, the prescription drug benefit,
or post-Katrina reconstruction.
for the president’s strange mixture of compassion and conservatism?
Perhaps his education in the 1960s, when the Left was raging,
soured him on any politics purporting to be based on philosophy
or abstract principle, rather than on heartfelt care or effective
compassion for another human being. Maybe his stance is congenital.
His father, notoriously, valued character over “ideology.”
More likely, George W. would trace his views to his born-again
faith. We know from the 2000 primaries that his favorite political
philosopher is Jesus Christ. Bush takes his faith seriously, and
its emphases on the dominion of Spirit over Law (including constitutional
law?) and on purity of heart colors his view of human excellence.
into Harriet Miers’s heart, and liked what he saw. But Christ’s
kingdom is not of this world, and here below it was reasonable
to insist on more evidence. Political men and women need good
character and high principles, preferably of the conservative
sort. Miers’s compassion may have been laudable, but it
was not a philosophy.
R. Kesler is editor of the Claremont
Review of Books.
© 2005, The Claremont Institute.
Visit the Claremont Institute at www.claremont.org