WASHINGTON — One of the most remarkable things about the end of George W. Bush's presidency is how many of his old pals can't wait to see him go.
Although Bush has compiled a conservative record on taxes, national security and social issues, many thinkers and leaders within the conservative movement have come to view him as a champion of big, inefficient government, and something of a liability.
On spending, on new government programs, and on the expansion of federal powers, these activists see Bush not as the inflexible ideologue that his liberal detractors portray, but as a philosophically inconsistent leader, ideologically squishy when it comes to domestic policy.
What's more, as head of the Republican Party for the past eight years, some complain Bush has muddled what it means to be a conservative by touting policies out of sync with the rank and file, complicating the party's efforts to recover after crushing defeats in the past two elections.
"Some people could make the argument that Bush was the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson," said Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University and author of a new paper, "Anatomy of a Divorce: Conservatives versus George W. Bush."
"There were a lot of things that conservatives felt grateful for. But on the other hand, the disappointments with Bush were profound."
Whitney, a Republican, ticked off the president's major transgressions:
• Initially nominating his counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, despite a deep bench of conservative legal scholars ready to be tapped.
• Supporting immigration reform that included a route to legal status for illegal immigrants.
• Adding a $900-billion prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the insurance program for senior citizens.
• Failing to keep Congress from spending beyond its means. Combined with the administration's demands for war funding, this contributed to a whopping 75 percent increase in the federal debt during his tenure. It's now more than $10-trillion.
The dismay has only grown recently, with the president's backing of the $700-billion Wall Street rescue package and loans to faltering U.S. automakers.
"One thing I hear from conservatives is we thought we were getting a conservative and we got a liberal," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who hosts a weekly roundtable that includes representatives from the White House, congressional Republican leaders and conservative advocacy groups. "But Bush isn't a liberal. … I think he's flailing around.
"A la carte is not the free market position."
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Conservatives do have reason to give thanks.
Bush has named conservative judges to the federal bench at every level. The appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court all but ensure the court will remain in conservative hands throughout President-elect Obama's first term, and possibly beyond.
He banned the use of federal funds for abortion abroad. He signed a bill banning late-term abortions, and his Supreme Court choices upheld it. He created the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which pays religious groups to provide social services. His first veto — six years into his presidency — blocked Congress from expanding funding for embryonic stem cell research.
He pushed to expand NATO to former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and continued the Strategic Defense Initiative, a technologically controversial program designed to stop incoming ballistic missiles.
He cut taxes in 2001 and 2003. He was an unabashed advocate of free trade. He used his executive authority to relax environmental clean air and water regulations. He lifted the ban on off-shore oil and gas exploration and opened millions of acres of federal land to drilling.
"I've been a firm believer in markets," President Bush said Thursday at a roundtable hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose scholars have criticized him on many points.
"That may sound contradictory to some of the policies that I have been making recently, which I'd be glad to discuss with you," he added, chuckling. "But I strongly believe in the principle that markets really do represent a free society."
Yet his accomplishments often are overshadowed by what his once-loyal base sees as his failures, particularly on spending, on shaky management of the federal government, and on his administration's mishandling of the reconstruction of Iraq.
In a forthcoming collection of essays on the Bush presidency called High Risk and Big Ambition, contributor John Pitney titled his chapter "ICK: Iraq, Corruption, Katrina."
"I think the equation for a lot of conservatives is the following: Iraq equals unpopularity equals President Obama," said Pitney, a Republican and a professor at Claremont-McKenna College in California. "A lot of them think if he had handled Iraq better, he might have been able to hand off the presidency to another Republican."
Pat Toomey, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which often pits more conservative challengers against moderate Republican members of Congress, said he doesn't buy the grumbling that Bush is a liberal in disguise. "But he's certainly one who participated in a major expansion of government. And that's very, very troubling."
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But think back eight years.
In his first election, Bush appealed to swing voters by running as a "compassionate conservative" who believed in low taxes and limited government but also believed in government's capacity for good. "Which I think ultimately was another way of saying 'big government conservative,' " said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a staunch conservative and a member of the Republican leadership.
Seeing Bush push, then sign, No Child Left Behind, huge highway bills, and the prescription drug benefit for Medicare, known as Part D, made him wince. Although Pence said he believes that Bush restored dignity to the White House and that history will treat him kindly, particularly for protecting the nation, he and his allies in the House believe the only way back to power is to renounce Bush's extravagance.
But at the forum Thursday, Bush defended many of the policies conservatives gripe about.
"The philosophy of No Child Left Behind was that in return for money, you must measure," the president said. "Some Republicans and conservatives said, 'What business is it of the federal government to insist upon accountability?'
"I believe it is a Republican and conservative principle that we ought to ask for results. And if you're going to spend money, then it makes sense to say, 'Are we achieving results?' "
As for propping up the financial and automobile industries, Bush said he "decided I didn't want to be the president during a depression greater than the Great Depression."
"People look at, 'My money being used because Wall Street got excessive,' " Bush said. "And I make the case that I didn't want to do this. … Nevertheless, I felt compelled to do it, because it would make life worse for you.
"We lost 533,000 jobs last month. What would another million jobs lost do to the economy? What would that do to the psychology in markets? What would that do — how would that affect the working people? We're all in, in this administration. And if need be, we'll be in for more."
Some Republicans argue that Bush was on the right track with compassionate conservatism, but got waylaid by the Sept. 11 attacks, a harder-than-expected slog in Iraq, and a tanking economy. Ronald Reagan wasn't ideologically pure, either — he even agreed to raise taxes — but he and his party were winners when he left office after eight years, and accolades drowned out the grumbling.
Kasey S. Pipes, a former Bush speechwriter and chief author of the 2004 Republican Party platform, says Bush understood the party needs to evolve from the age of Reagan. He, too, believes history will treat Bush well, and that conservatives advocating for wholesale change from Bush's philosophy on the role of government ought to reconsider if they hope to win again.
"You think about all the issues Reagan was tackling" — an overly burdensome tax code, an anemic military, a bloated government, the Soviet Union — "and they're gone," Pipes said.
"I don't know that Bush had the right answers, but I do think he was asking the right questions."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.