Conservatives have two worries about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee that he is not conservative enough and that he may lack the gravitas or personal seriousness needed to sustain the public's respect.
Doubts about Bush
Texas Gov. George W. Bush does display the odd, playful exuberance that seems to run in his family, and unlike his father, former President George Bush, he does not carry the weighty ballast of being a war hero. But then he is much more successful politically than his father was at the same age, and the younger Bush is also more of a Texan, so a little swagger is mixed in with his antics.
George W. is likeable and knows he is, whereas his father always wanted us to like him (and, of course, most Americans did, though there was always something eccentrically patrician about him).
George W., his populism edged with pride, is no Dan Quayle, either. Quayle froze in the media spotlight, plaintively looking for a referee so he could call time out and regroup. When Bush was caught off guard by that reporter armed with a foreign-policy pop quiz, the governor did a slow burn and eventually fired back some tough questions and comments of his own at his ambusher.
Spiritedness is not the same thing as seriousness, of course, but the former is essential to the latter. So at this point conservatives know enough to be confident that Bush has within himself some of the ingredients of gravitas.
The larger doubt, however, is whether Bush is sufficiently conservative. When Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was overtaking Bush in the presidential primaries, Bush desperately veered rightward. But necessity is the mother of invention, not of conviction, and conservatives wonder how Bush would govern once safely in office.
His credo of "compassionate conservatism" leaves them skeptical. In the first place, it seems more an improvisation than a principle. Insofar as it is meant seriously, however, it appears to imply that conservatism per se lacks compassion and, hence, needs that saving adjective.
Besides which, to many conservatives, particularly libertarians, government should not be in the compassion business, anyway. If the state is compassionate, then why not have more rather than less government?
The party of liberty and Union
Perhaps the best way for Bush to confront these various suspicions is to put his conservatism into a larger and different context. No Republican presidential candidate in memory has talked much about the legacy and meaning of his own party.
Not even Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat who told voters again and again in 1980 that "I didn't leave my party, and we're not suggesting you leave yours." "The leadership of the Democratic Party" had left him, Reagan declared, and so he asked the "millions of patriotic Democrats in this country who believed in freedom" to join him in his partisan exile. It was, I wrote at the time, as if he were calling upon voters to support the Republicans faute de mieux, there being no real Democrats left in control of their party any more.
Bush now has the opportunity to make a positive appeal based on the merits of the Republican Party rather than on the deficiencies of the Democrats, and to redefine his conservatism along historic Republican lines. McCain got a rise out of audiences by invoking the reformist tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Similarly, Bush can reap great benefits by talking up the Lincolnian principles that inspired Republicans in the decades from the Civil War to the New Deal when the GOP was the majority party.
The Republican Party stood for liberty and Union, and applied those principles to the changing circumstances of national life over many generations. At first, liberty meant the abolition of slavery and Union the defeat of secession. But Republicans also applied those principles by passing the first national civil-rights acts; the Homestead Act, to encourage the settling of the West by hard-working, middle-class families; various laws stimulating transcontinental railroads (the infrastructure of the day) that would help to draw together the far-flung Union; and measures to build a modern navy and army, and the Panama Canal.
Moreover, the party of Lincoln believed in energetic (though not unlimited) government and embraced, for example, a modest federal role in education policy. Republicans sponsored land-grant colleges and increased local funding for primary and secondary schools.
Today, Bush could promote a Republicanism that continues to stand for personal liberty and strong national unity -- via tax cuts, Social Security reform, individual (not group) rights, military modernization and missile defense. He could explain his education reforms as a prudent return to Republican roots, too. Rather than presenting "compassionate conservatism" as a response to (or worse, an imitation of) Clinton's "Third Way," Bush could ground his program squarely in the principles of the party of Lincoln.
Saving the Constitution
Real conservatism, Bush thus would imply, is Lincolnian in spirit. It is based on neither cultural nostalgia nor libertarian hatred of government, but on the principles of individual rights and popular government. Those principles come together in the Constitution, whose "checks upon hasty popular actions," affirmed William Howard Taft in 1912, had made the Americans "the greatest self-governing people that the world ever knew."
Alas, the Constitution is not as healthy as it once was. Activist judges, lawless agencies and irresponsible legislators have taken their toll. Though no conservative worthy of the name can be indifferent to these developments, Bush so far has said little about them. Yet for Lincoln, saving liberty and the Union would have been impossible without saving the Constitution at the same time.
Conservatives will be watching to see if Bush has any compassion to spare for the Constitution. If he wants to demonstrate gravitas, here is a Lincolnian occasion for it.