WHY IS THIS ELECTION SO HARD FOR SO MANY PEOPLE? Here's one theory. It's not so easy to tell who's the liberal and who's the conservative anymore. You want a candidate who pumps unprecedented amounts of money into agricultural subsidies, uses tariffs to protect some American industries and adds a whole new entitlement to Medicare? That would be the, er, Republican, George W. Bush.
You want a future President who will be hard nosed about committing U.S. troops abroad, wants to balance every new spending item with a tax hike or a spending cut elsewhere and backs states' rights on social issues? Then go ahead and vote for the, er, Democrat, John Kerry.
You think there's too little federal control over education? Vote Bush. Want to expand health-care coverage primarily through the private sector? Vote Kerry.
Confused yet? You're not the only one. For conservatives there's plenty to worry about in Bush's record. By any measure, the government is bigger, more powerful and more intrusive than when he found it. Domestic spending has gone up at a greater rate than under any other President since Lyndon Johnson. The President hasn't found a single spending bill he wanted to veto. And he cannot even blame Congress. His own party controls all of it. In foreign policy, conservatives have long tended to be realists, acting only in response to hard-faced national interest, exercising prudence and caution, only reluctantly intervening in other countries' affairs. That's the kind of conservative Bush campaigned as in 2000, lambasting "nation building" in the debates and calling for fewer troops than Al Gore did.
In office, however, spurred by 9/11, Bush has become a Kennedy-style Democrat, trying to turn two violence-wracked countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, into democracies by military force. He has reversed decades of U.S. policy by launching two pre-emptive wars, backing democracy at the risk of making the Middle East even more unstable and ignoring the U.N. and other allies when he believed they were wrong. He backed a new military theory that argued that you could fight and win wars with relatively few troops. The old, more cautious doctrine--inherited from the first President Bush and Colin Powell--was always to use overwhelming force for very narrow ends. Bush junked this military conservatism in favor of something far bolder and riskier.
You can see why these shifts occurred. Sept. 11 changed everything, including Bush. And you can see how a recession prompted Bush to spend more money while he was lowering taxes at the same time. But the postwar reality in Iraq has also proved some conservative instincts right: it is indeed hard to export democracy where none has existed. And it is hard to keep order in a huge, unstable country with dangerously low troop levels. As for Bush's spree of spending and borrowing, as baby boomers face retirement and Medicare and Social Security begin to bust the budget, his lack of discipline looks like recklessness.