Bush walks away from conservative ideology

President Bush's decision to shore up the financial markets with massive government intervention is the latest sign of a broad ideological transformation of his presidency.

After a first term in which he largely adhered to conservative – or neoconservative – principles, Bush has moved away from long-standing positions on a range of foreign and domestic issues. In the final year of his second term, he has reached out diplomatically to North Korea and Iran, engineered a dramatic midcourse correction on the Iraq war, and increased the government's role in the daily workings of the economy to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable when he first pursued the nation's highest office.

For a president who toppled two foreign governments and slashed taxes dramatically in his first term, the policies of his second term are striking, particularly to those who had hoped his presidency might usher in enduring conservative rule in Washington. Some leading conservatives seemed stunned by the turn of events last week that has left the federal government in control of one of the world's biggest insurance companies and the two largest financiers of home mortgages.

“I believe that the president is exhausted and the vice president has been marginalized, and what you now have is the Washington interests … dominating the administration,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Friday. “We have now launched big-government Republicanism. If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy. We would have had pious speeches about the folly of bureaucrats running businesses.”

Given the gravity of the financial crisis, others in the political world did not begrudge Bush his deviation from conservative purity on economic policy. Some in both parties considered the administration's moves a welcome abandonment of ideology to cope with a global economic slowdown, instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the ongoing war in Iraq, and nuclear ambitions of Iran.

“He has become overcome by hard realities, including his weaker political base and intractable problems,” said Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. “That makes him more like a garden-variety pragmatist and less like a mission politician who is driven by a creed.”

Bush has always been less ideologically rigid than his critics have granted, embracing a dramatic expansion of the Medicare program with a new prescription drug program (albeit one tailored along free-market principles) and pushing, unsuccessfully, for a liberalization of immigration rules. He also presided over a dramatic increase in federal spending, disappointing many conservatives.

Few outside analysts disagree that Bush moved to the center, especially after Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006. The changes are reflected in an overhaul of personnel at key Cabinet agencies, particularly State, Defense and the Treasury, where secretaries pursued – or were allowed to pursue – much more pragmatic policies than their predecessors.

At State, for instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tried to restart a Middle East peace process that had been largely abandoned in the first term, and was given more flexibility by Bush to pursue a diplomatic deal with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been open to different approaches on Iraq and sought to defuse the tensions between civilian leaders and uniformed officers at the Pentagon under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

“What's going on is learning – it does happen in the light of the experience,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a diplomatic historian at Yale University. “I think the second term is quite different than the first term, particularly in foreign policy and now it is happening on the economy. … There is a far greater degree of pragmatism and less ideological rigidity.”