President Bush’s Governing Philosophy
Note: Peter Wehner is the Director of the Office of Strategic
Initiatives at the White House. The following is the text
of a speech he delivered at The Hudson Institute last week.)
live in remarkable times – and in working at the White
House, one of the striking things is the sheer pace of events.
Given the advent of talk radio, cable news and the Internet
– good things all -- I suspect it at least feels as
though the pace of events has accelerated compared to just
a few decades ago.
afternoon I hope to take a step back from the rush of daily
events and discuss President Bush’s governing philosophy.
I’ll briefly look at three areas – foreign,
social, and economic policy – and make the case for
why I believe the President is making significant intellectual
contributions to each.
Spreading Liberty Abroad
me begin with foreign policy, and by stating a proposition:
one of President Bush’s key conceptual contributions
is the idea that expanding freedom leads to peace among
nations – and that America’s vital interests
and our deepest beliefs are twined.
reading of the
President’s second Inaugural Address reveals it
is an effort to break down the dividing wall that has sometimes
separated American interests and American idealism. The
President’s speech argues that pursuing our core principles
will promote our national security – and that what
happens within the borders of other nations is often of
intense interest to our own.
clearest expression of this is President Bush’s break
with six decades of Western policy that accommodated the
lack of freedom in the Middle East. For more than a half-century,
tyranny and oppression in the Middle East were met with
at best indifference, and at worst support. No effort was
made to spread liberty to the Arab world. But then came
what President Bush called “a day of fire” –
and in its aftermath emerged a new doctrine for this new
core of this doctrine rests on the President’s belief
that stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty
– and as long as the Middle East remains a place where
freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation
and resentment, a cauldron of anti-Western hatred and violence.
the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, President Bush
made a decision to relentlessly pursue terrorists –
and to go after the conditions of oppression and corruption
that give rise to terrorism. The President adopted a fundamentally
new approach – what he calls a forward strategy of
freedom in the Middle East. This means giving practical
support to the rise of democracy in the broader Middle East,
and the hope and progress that democracy brings.
Administration is not without its critics – but it
is worth noting, I think, that our critics have offered
no competing theory on how to address the generator of global
terrorism. They may take issue with our execution of policy
– but they have no conceptual theory to offer in its
place. And that is itself revealing.
President believes the course he has chosen is wise because
it is rooted in recent human experience. We are, after all,
witnessing the swiftest advances in human freedom in history.
According to Freedom House, of the 192 countries in the
world, 119 – or 62 percent – have freely elected
governments. And since the mid-point of the last century,
we have seen almost a doubling in the percentage of people
living in democratic states.
worth bearing in mind that in less than four months, we
have seen elections take place in Afghanistan, the Ukraine,
among the Palestinians, and in Iraq. In the span of 113
days, more than 100 million people, living on two continents,
have cast free votes in nations that had never known true
democracy. More than half of these voters are people of
the Muslim faith who live in the broader Middle East.
those who remain skeptical of the appeal of liberty and
its capacity to take root in foreign soil, it is worth recalling
a line from philosophy: you can prove the possible by the
before our eyes are historical, and enormously hopeful,
achievements. We are witnessing a great movement toward
the Bush Administration’s policies are anchored in
more than recent human experience; they are also grounded
in a particular view of human nature – and in the
truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In
the “enlightened belief” of the Founders, Lincoln
said, “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness
was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded,
and imbruted by its fellows.”
Bush’s policies are consistent with America’s
“ancient faith;” he believes “liberty
is the design of nature,” which explains why it leads
to human flourishing. In an important essay in The
Public Interest, James Ceasar and Daniel DiSalvo wrote
on the foundational principles of the Bush foreign policy
and concluded this: “Not since Lincoln has the putative
head of the Republican party so actively sought to ground
the party in a politics of natural right.”
me insert some important caveats. Foundational principles
are vital – but they do not provide a President with
specific guidance on how to act in every circumstance faced
by every nation. The goal of the Bush Doctrine is to advance
liberty – but the means to the end will vary. Is it
really necessary to point out that in pursuing its commitment
toward spreading liberty and ending tyranny, we may use
different tactics with an ally that is not yet fully free
but is taking steps toward democracy versus a totalitarian
enemy that is taking steps toward greater oppression and
to those who say that the declared goal of American policy
-- to eventually end tyranny in the world – is impossible
to achieve and cannot possibly be serious, let me offer
an enlightened understanding of balancing moral ends and
means. It once again comes to us courtesy of Abraham Lincoln,
who said this in his 1857 Springfield speech on the Dred
"[The Founders] did consider all men created
equal -- equal in 'certain inalienable rights, among which
are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' This
they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert
the obvious untruth, that all men were enjoying that equality,
or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately
upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a
boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that
the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances
should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for
a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered
by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for,
and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated,
and therefore constantly spreading and deepening its influence,
and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all
people of all colors everywhere."
of us in this Administration understand that for liberty
to take root in a society more than an election is required.
Elections are vital – but they do not by themselves
constitute a vibrant democratic culture. This requires certain
civic habits, which take time to develop – and which
elections themselves can help develop. And elections can
also help de-legitimize a brutal and bitter insurgency,
as we saw in El Salvador in the 1980s and as I believe we
are now seeing in Iraq. Elections by themselves cannot defeat
an insurgency; but they can certainly contribute to its
add that our own democratic development – which was
gradual and halting and involved us in a “fiery trial”
that cost more than 600,000 American lives – is a
reminder that we must be patient with others. Working democracies
need time to develop – and as they develop, they will
reflect their own cultures. In the United States we've taken
a two-century- long journey toward equality and social justice
– and this should make us patient with other nations
at different stages of this journey. The President has called
this the work of generations; it is not something that will
come into being in the blink of an eye.
those caveats in place, let me return to my main point:
President Bush believes in certain fixed, immutable principles.
In his words, “We will persistently clarify the choice
before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between
oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is
those who disagree with this approach, let them say so loudly,
clearly, publicly, and repeatedly.
Worthy of Liberty at Home
the world is moving toward freedom, President Bush believes
we must show we are worthy of it here at home. He believes
rights must be tethered to responsibilities – and
that the public interest depends on private character. In
the words of the President, “Self-government relies,
in the end, on the governing of the self.” This belief
goes back to the ancient Greeks and to the American Founders.
It is an old truth – but one that has been often overlooked
in these modern times.
is formed by habits – and habits are shaped by key
institutions: families and schools, communities and places
of religious worship. These are the institutions that help
give purpose and meaning to our lives – and government
cannot be indifferent to them. To cite a line penned by
one of this year’s Bradley Prize winners, statecraft
is why the President has spoken out often, and eloquently,
in defense of marriage as a sacred institution and the foundation
of society. It is why he has put the government on the side
of supporting safe and stable families, adoption, and responsible
fatherhood. It is why he signed into law the most important
Federal education reform in history – one that insists
on high standards and accountability. It is why faith-based
groups are receiving unprecedented support and encouragement.
It is why the President has fostered a culture of service
and citizenship. And it is why the President is building
a culture of life and upholding the dignity of the human
are of course limits to what government can do to shape
the habits of the heart. Government is a blunt instrument,
and everyone in this room is familiar with the Law of Unintended
Consequences. Yet surely we can expect the government to
be an ally instead of an adversary when it comes to strengthening
vital social institutions – those that provide our
children with love and teach them empathy, that instill
in them compassion and courage, self-discipline and honesty,
respect for others and love of country.
of the duties of adulthood is to teach future generations
what is worthy of their affection and passion, their honor
and their allegiance. “What we have loved, others
will love, and we will teach them how,” Wordsworth
said. And “teaching them how” is preeminently
the responsibility of families and schools, communities
and houses of worship.
Creating An Ownership Society
me now turn to the President's economic agenda. President
Bush has made the case that many of our most fundamental
systems – the tax code, health care coverage, pension
plans, and worker training – were created for a bygone
era. The President is committed to transforming these systems
so citizens are better prepared to make their own choices
and pursue their own dreams. "Whatever else it does,"
Business Week wrote during the 2004 election, "Bush's
throwing down the gauntlet will open one of the more striking
debates of the campaign. That's because there's a philosophical
gulf between liberals' evocations of social equity and the
comfort of a government helping hand vs. conservatives'
paeans to individualism and entrepreneurship."
The philosophical underpinning of what President Bush calls
the "ownership society" is to provide Americans
with a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more
control over their own lives. This young century will be
liberty's century, the President has said, and here at home
we will extend the frontiers of freedom. And so the President
has embraced the ideas of voluntary personal accounts in
which younger workers can save some of their Social Security
taxes in order to build a nest egg for retirement; lifetime
savings accounts which would allow every American to save
as much as $7,500 a year and shield from taxation the investment
returns on those savings; health savings accounts, tax-free
accounts designed to help individuals save for health expenses;
and tax credits for low-income families and individuals
to purchase health insurance.
President has also pledged to reform the current tax code,
which he calls “archaic” and “incoherent.”
He wants a new tax code that is simpler, fairer, and more
pro-growth. Homeownership in America is at an all-time high
– and President Bush will build on that achievement.
And in almost every realm – education, the federal
civil service system, drug treatment programs, foreign aid,
and much else – the President is tying public spending
to competition and accountability.
also contributes to community. When people own their own
houses, they become vested not just in their property, but
their community. It makes people more communally responsible.
Ownership also elicits greater commitment and care from
owners themselves. “In the history of the world,”
it has been said, “no one has ever washed a rented
I mentioned before, one of the core questions of political
philosophy has to do with the habits that government encourages
among the citizenry. The aim of the President's policies
is to encourage self-reliance and provide greater opportunity.
believes government should promote market reforms and strengthen
liberty – and underlying all of this is the belief
that government must begin with the proper conception of
the individual. Government's default position should not
be to view citizens as wards of the state, but rather as
responsible and independent, self-sufficient and upright.
closest example to what President Bush is attempting to
do with his emphasis on an "ownership society”
may be found in the policies of former British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher. In her remarkable 1992 book The Anatomy
of Thatcherism, the political philosopher Shirley Robin
Letwin wrote this:
"... the Thatcherite argues that being one's
own master -- in the sense of owning one's own home or
disposing of one's own property -- provides an incentive
to think differently about the world... A Thatcherite
… stresses that [ownership and moral attitudes]
are connected, and sees in wider individual ownership
a useful means of promoting the moral attitudes that Thatcherism
seeks to cultivate. Nor is it only independence and self-sufficiency
which the Thatcherite hopes to encourage by means of wider
ownership. Personal energy and adventurousness, critical
components of the vigorous virtues -- are also believed
by the Thatcherite to be encouraged by wider ownership."
President's agenda is an ambitious one – but to quote
The Economist magazine, "Mr. Bush is nothing if not
ambitious. If his new philosophy endures, he will be a transformative
figure in the history of the modern conservative movement."
me conclude with a few words about conservatism and America’s
43rd President. Many of you in this audience are conservative
because you believe it is the political philosophy that
best allows societies to prosper and flourish. Conservatives
understand the important role that traditions, institutions,
habits, and authority have in our common life.
the same time, there is a conservative temperament that
can be politically counterproductive. For many years, conservatism
was characterized by a suspicion and defensiveness toward
the world in which we live. It was primarily a reactive
political movement, which mitigated against boldness.
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there
is a season. At some points in history, the role of conservatism
has been to stop pernicious ideologies: the excesses of
the French Revolution, socialism, fascism, and imperial
communism. These were monumental achievements – but
we have entered a different era. Today the role of conservatism
is to be proactive, bold, energetic, and optimistic –
to shape history rather than to impede it.
live in a history-shaping moment. Conservatism is the dominant
political philosophy of this young century – and President
George W. Bush is making significant philosophical and political
contributions to it.
late January 2001, America's new President said, "We
are here to make progress, we are not here to mark time."
George W. Bush has been true to his word. He is one of history’s
Consequential Presidents. In a single term he has shaped
and refined the direction of his own party. He has fundamentally
recast America's national security strategy. And he has
put forward a transformative domestic agenda. In foreign
policy President Bush has earned the title as one of history's
Great Liberators – and I believe in domestic policy
he will be seen as one of its Great Reformers. His first
term was enormously eventful – and very successful.
But there is more, much more, that remains to be done. And
now this good man has a mandate to claim, and a nation to
govern. To be part of that enterprise has been – for
me and for so many of my colleagues -- the professional
honor of a lifetime.
you very much.
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