Former President George W. Bush fails conservative litmus test

Which president increased federal spending by 68 percent? If you guessed under former “conservative” President George W. Bush's administration, you'd be correct.

It has always baffled me how many consider Bush to be the “epitome of modern American conservatism.” Though he campaigned as a conservative, Bush abandoned most of his conservative roots and embraced an entirely different political philosophy during his term in office.

According to Ronald Reagan, conservatism is the “desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom.” In essence, conservatives champion individual freedom, limited government and personal responsibility. At the heart of modern American conservatism is the simple belief that big government limits our country from doing great and powerful things.

Fiscally, Bush fails.

While neoconservatives support U.S. intervention in foreign lands, more traditional conservatives prefer some type of isolationism. Bush spent close to $1 trillion on two foreign wars, wherein arguably only one was justified, and rose federal discretionary spending by an average of 5.3 percent, highlighted by inefficient programs like the No Child Left Behind act and the massive “highway bill” that included tons of unnecessary earmarks. Bush even enacted the biggest single expansion of Medicare since it was created, according to David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers.

His administration also passed The Patriot Act, a hotly debated piece of legislature that drew criticism from both the right and the left for handing too much power to the federal government.

As far as conservative values goes, Bush doesn’t have a good track record of decreasing the power of the federal government. It is unequivocally clear that Bush left office with a more powerful federal government than when he began.

So, if he failed at essentially the most important aspect of conservatism, why do many still consider him a conservative?

First, he was a passionate social conservative. For instance, he used his powers in office to expand the role of the federal government to, among other social issues, block stem-cell research. His social conservatism, however, is at odds with the heart of the conservative movement in America, particularly by limiting individual freedom and increasing the size of the federal government.

Social conservatism is not true conservatism.

Second, he cut taxes. While it is true that conservatives call for fewer taxation — yes, even for the wealthiest Americans — they also call for limited government, which calls for less federal spending.

While the infamous “Bush tax cuts” were considered a conservative victory at the time, the addition of his massive federal spending resulted in a federal deficit. As a consequence, members of the GOP made a balanced budget one of their primary ideological priorities. Bush’s presidency tarnished conservatism’s economic legacy so badly that conservatives still have to distance themselves from his failed neoliberal policies.

Because of him, conservatism is still licking its open economic and philosophical wounds.

If anyone ever tells you that former President George W. Bush's presidency was a “conservative” disaster, be prepared to say that former President George W. Bush was not a true conservative.

He was a fiscal liberal in disguise.


Reach the columnist at or follow him at sean_mccauley. 

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.