The conservative case against George W. Bush
How many times during the past eight years did you hear that former President Bush was a dangerous right-wing extremist? Probably too many to count.
What you heard less often were expressions of the deep reservations some conservatives felt about Bush's governing philosophy.
Conservatives greatly admired Bush for his steadfastness in the War on Terror -- to use that outlawed phrase -- and they were delighted by his choices of John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court.
But when it came to a fundamental conservative principle such as fiscal discipline, many conservatives felt that president just wasn't with them.
You saw that throughout the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, when GOP candidates, while not mentioning Bush specifically, got big applause from conservative Republican audiences by pledging to return fiscal responsibility to the White House.
Those cheering conservatives will find a revealing moment in a new book by former White House speechwriter Matt Latimer, a veteran of conservative politics. An admirer of Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, for whom he worked for several years, Latimer also worked in the Rumsfeld Pentagon before joining the Bush White House in 2007.
The revealing moment, described in "Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor," occurred in the Oval Office in early 2008. Bush was preparing to give a speech to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. The conference is the event of the year for conservative activists; Republican politicians are required to appear and offer their praise of the conservative movement.
Latimer got the assignment to write Bush's speech. Draft in hand, he and a few other writers met with the president in the Oval Office. Bush was decidedly unenthusiastic.
"What is this movement you keep talking about in the speech?" the president asked Latimer.
Latimer explained that he meant the conservative movement -- the movement that gave rise to groups such as CPAC.
Bush seemed perplexed. Latimer elaborated a bit more. Then Bush leaned forward, with a point to make.
"Let me tell you something," the president said. "I whupped Gary Bauer's ass in 2000. So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement."
Bush seemed to equate the conservative movement -- the astonishing growth of conservative political strength that took place in the decades after Barry Goldwater's disastrous defeat in 1964 -- with the fortunes of Bauer, the evangelical Christian activist and former head of the Family Research Council, whose 2000 presidential campaign went nowhere.
Now it was Latimer who looked perplexed. Bush tried to explain.
"Look, I know this probably sounds arrogant to say," the president said, "but I redefined the Republican Party."
The Oval Office is no place for a low-ranking White House staffer to get into an argument with the president of the United States about the state of the Republican Party -- or about any other subject, for that matter.
Latimer made the changes the president wanted. When Bush appeared at CPAC, he made no mention of the conservative movement. In fact, he said the word "conservative" only once, in the last paragraph.
Bush veterans are going to take issue with some of Latimer's criticisms in "Speechless." As an observer of it all, I certainly don't agree with his characterizations of some Bush administration officials. But looking back at the Bush years, the scene in the Oval Office adds context to the debate that is going on inside conservative circles today.
Right after the Republican Party's across-the-board defeat last November, there was a wave of what-went-wrong self-analysis. Republicans were divided between those who believed the party had lost touch with conservative principles and those who believed it had failed to adapt to changed political and demographic circumstances.
Bush's words in the Oval Office speak directly to that first group. You can argue whether Bush was a fiscal conservative at any time in his political career, but he certainly wasn't in the White House. And some real fiscal conservatives, with their guy in charge, held their tongues.
Now, with unified Democratic control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, we're seeing spending that makes Bush's record look downright thrifty. Republicans have again found their voice on fiscal discipline. And some of them wish they had been more outspoken when a president of their own party was in the White House.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.