The Nanny in Chief

  • There's barely a speech by President Bush that doesn't cite the glories of human freedom. It's God's gift to mankind, he believes. And in some ways this President has clearly expanded it: the people of Afghanistan and Iraq enjoy liberties unimaginable only a few years ago. But there's a strange exception to this Bush doctrine. It ends when you reach America's shores. Within the U.S., the Bush Administration has shown an unusually hostile attitude toward the exercise of personal freedom. When your individual choices conflict with what the Bush people think is good for you, they have been only too happy to intervene. The government, Bush clearly believes, has a right to be involved in many personal decisions you make — punishing some, encouraging others, nudging and prodding the public to live the good life as the President understands it. The nanny state, much loved by Democrats, is thriving under Republicans.

    Just recall Bush's State of the Union address last week. People used to ridicule President Clinton's laundry list of micro-initiatives. But Bush is no different. Where once education was essentially the preserve of states, school principals and parents, this President has expanded the federal role in unprecedented ways. The No Child Left Behind Act holds states and localities accountable for meeting educational standards in order to qualify for federal funds. No wonder Ted Kennedy originally signed on.

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    In his speech, the President unveiled millions of dollars to randomly test high school kids for drug use. He is doubling the federal money currently spent to admonish teens to practice sexual abstinence. He is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on antidrug propaganda and sending federal agents to bust pot clubs for those using medical marijuana to ease the pain of crippling diseases. Republican Senators are even trying to withhold federal funding from states that allow medical-marijuana ads on public transport. These are not unrelated measures. The President is proud of his Big Government moralism. As he put it in his first State of the Union message, "Values are important, so we have tripled funding for character education to teach our children not only reading and writing, but right from wrong." Sounds inoffensive enough. But who exactly determines what is right and what is wrong? Churches? Synagogues? Parents? Teachers? Nah. The Federal Government.

    Once upon a time, Republicans believed in leaving it to the private and voluntary sectors to do the important work of building citizenship and values. Remember the "thousand points of light"? These days those lightbulbs need government subsidies. One of the key beliefs of this President is that federal money should be funneled to religious groups that blend proselytizing with important social work. His faith-based initiative largely withered on the vine, but he has done what he can. In last year's State of the Union message, he proposed almost half a billion dollars to pay for mentors for disadvantaged high school students or the children of prisoners. This year he proposed an extensive government program to coach newly released ex-cons into better lives. Ever wonder who these government-backed mentors are? And what exactly they're preaching? Maybe you should, because you're paying for them.

    States' rights? Only if the states do what the President believes in. How else to explain the vast expansion of federal power that the Partial Birth Abortion Act entailed, limiting the rights of states to regulate abortion as they see fit? On medical marijuana, the Bush doctrine has led to federal agents' overruling state laws that tolerate the use of pot for medicinal purposes. Gay marriage? The Bush Administration is close to backing a federal constitutional amendment that would overrule any state that decided to give marriages — or even civil unions and domestic partnerships — to gays. States' rights are all well and good — as long as the states don't do things that some Republicans disapprove of.

    Want to lose weight using ephedra? You can't. Bush's FDA has banned the over-the-counter supplement. Steroids? You heard the Nanny in Chief. And if you're a scientist researching a touchy subject, be prepared to feel the breath of Big Government down the back of your white coat. Early on in his Administration, the President — not scientists or patients — decided exactly how far federally funded research into stem cells could go. Cloning technologies? Forget about it.

    There has always been a tension in conservatism between those who favor more liberty and those who want more morality. But what's indisputable is that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is a move toward the latter — the use of the government to impose and subsidize certain morals over others. He is fusing Big Government liberalism with religious-right moralism. It's the nanny state with more cash. Your cash, that is. And their morals.