If you've ever wondered why even a mention of George W. Bush regularly causes American leftists to become unhinged, his Vegas speech Jan. 31 offered a major clue.
Given many of the actual policies pursued by this president, the enmity he triggers from the left may seem wildly disproportionate. After all, domestically Bush not only accepted but massively expanded Lyndon Johnson's federal entitlement state. And in foreign policy, he embraced Woodrow Wilson's democratizing internationalism after 9/11 with a genuine vengeance.
Notwithstanding these epoch-defining choices, however, Bush remains the bête noire of self-declared "progressives" everywhere.
So the question remains: Why?
As reported by most mainstream media, Bush's address to the Nevada Policy Research Institute last month merely 1) made his case for staying in Iraq until a democratic, anti-terrorist government can survive, and 2) gave him an occasion to sign a short-term extension of a war-on-terror security measure.
Yet the actual themes of his speech turn out, upon inspection, to be much more consequential than that.
In making the case for his Iraq policy before the Institute, the President recognized and embraced an opportunity to address the defining issue of his presidency within the first principles of Western Civilization.
He began by noting parallels between the current battle against Islamofascism and America's 20th Century battles against European fascism and Soviet communism. "We're involved in an ideological struggle," he argued, "the likes of which we have seen before in our history. It's an ideological struggle between those of us who love freedom and human rights and human dignity, and those who want to impose their dark vision on how people should live their lives."
It is precisely this clear and straightforward diagnosis that so grates on the left. For almost seven years now, self-proclaimed progressives have been hearing elements of it, which they obviously find excruciating. But now Bush has assembled all those elements into a broad and historically grounded narrative that not only offends the timid liberal gods of "nuance," but, even worse, is manifestly true. Such clarity and cogency thus constitutes – to the extent that a war-weary public consents to listen – a lethal dagger aimed at leftist hopes of consolidating power.
You may object that this administration itself has more than once compromised the very principles of market liberty and trust of the people that, in the context of this war, it now seeks to invoke. Doubtlessly that is correct.
However, the vulnerability of the modern left in this regard is of an entirely different order. So-called progressives' long history of regularly siding, in a full spectrum of complicity, with America's totalitarian enemies is well and amply documented. The elephant in the room that almost never is acknowledged, however, is the underlying affinity in doctrine and outlook that paves the way for such complicity. Namely: a covert consensus that what human beings really need is not individual liberty, to live their lives as they see fit, but the rule of a supposedly wiser elite.
Thus, when Bush alludes to the Islamofascist craving to control other human beings, real tremors pass through the ranks of the left. Clearly the urge to control others is not limited to Middle Eastern fanatics. It is also central to the so-called progressive agenda – regulatory strait-jackets and more state coercion always being necessary, supposedly, for "social progress."
Is this the root of progressivist hypersensitivity to the 43rd President of the United States? As Thomas Sowell argues tellingly, the sense of moral superiority, or anointment, is fundamental to partisans of the left. Wed yourself to the progressive agenda, they are implicitly told, and your membership in humanity's moral elite will be self-evident to all.
Except that, here comes the Bush argument, with its explosive and deeply unflattering implications for the leftist cause and – to anyone with a halfway logical bent – similarly unflattering implications for its partisans. Small wonder that the liberal blogosphere erupts in rage, and the spittle flies.
If one's self-esteem rests upon supposed membership among the morally anointed, presidential statements that highlight one's personal totalitarian tendencies, even indirectly, have got to smart.
For decades following deep Soviet penetration of America's World War II federal establishment, leftists have sought to enforce a no-fault world where political correctness reigns and public amnesia always sweeps in quickly to obliterate accountability and obscure culpability.
Except that in this no-fault world, evil does exist. It simply, we are supposed to believe, lies with those who point the finger at clear facts and seek to protect your freedoms.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Complete coverage of President Bush's address to NPRI is available at npri.org.