The pragmatic leader cloaked in a robe of homespun piety

The Bush Administration
October 12, 2007

Even perceptive British observers of US politics tend to assume an intimate connection between George W. Bush and the Religious Right. The relationship, they believe, was typified by the crusading rhetoric used by Bush to justify the "War on Terror". But the dramatic events of September 11, 2001, did not change Bush's mode of thought; they only provided vivid evidence of a fundamentalist mindset that was already affecting domestic policy.

Edward Ashbee's book is a welcome attempt to present a more nuanced interpretation of Bush's approach to politics. Undoubtedly, the Religious Right helped to elevate Bush to the White House and keep him there. But a close examination of the evidence shows that he has made a very partial repayment for this support. His record strongly resembles that of Margaret Thatcher, who did little to satisfy the initial hopes she aroused among members of Britain's own "moral majority".

In this respect, at least, Thatcher and Bush were pragmatists: even if they would have liked a return to traditional values, they were not prepared to jeopardise their electoral prospects by promoting a systematic programme of reform.

As Ashbee notes, Bush's biography and (adult) personality meant that he could take the religious lobby pretty much for granted. In the past he had sinned, in a way that apparently hurt himself more than others. Since then he had seen the light; but he did not take this experience as a licence to press repentance on others. Instead, Bush seemed to personify a homely, wholesome piety. His admirers were invited to assume that his faith would hold the casting vote in finely balanced decisions, but he would not flinch when the national interest dictated some Machiavellian moments. Hence his initial appeal to people who had no strong connections either in religion or in politics.

However, Ashbee suggests that Bush's pragmatic approach to moral issues came under increasing strain in his second term. In part, this was probably a result of his foreign policy misadventures: a few genuflections on hot-button subjects such as gay marriage and abortion could be seen as a cheap way to shore up domestic support, particularly for a president who would never have to face "middle ground" voters again. Even so, Bush had to give some attention to the future prospects of his party, not least because a landside victory for a Democratic successor would reinforce the view that his Administration has been a failure. Ashbee provides polling evidence that suggests the Republicans should select another pragmatist in the Bush mould as their next presidential candidate. Contrary to the impression conveyed by sections of the British media, it seems that the average US voter is increasingly prepared to accept a degree of moral diversity.

Ashbee's conclusions about the Bush presidency ring true, and his sober analysis should be read by anyone who has been swayed by the highly coloured media coverage of the US since 2001. However, the structure of the book is not entirely satisfactory. There is plenty of material about the fortunes of the Religious Right in recent years, but this is not fully integrated with the analysis of Bush's motives. Also, while the concentration on domestic issues is a welcome addition to a literature that has been dominated by foreign policy, the attempt to redress the balance goes a little too far and leaves one wanting to hear more about the ramifications of 9/11.

Mark Garnett is lecturer in politics and international relations at Lancaster University. His book From Anger to Apathy: Britain since 1975 , was published this month by Jonathan Cape.

The Bush Administration: Sex and the Moral Agenda

Author - Edward Ashbee
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 254
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 97807190772

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