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Trouble on the right? Bush and his conservative base

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 14, 2003

President Bush has been having more than his share of troubles lately. The economy is not quite where it should be, with unemployment offices reporting that jobless claims are at a 20-year high. Criticism of his administration's intelligence handling prior to going to war with Iraq, and even the veracity of its WMD claims, is mounting. The public is growing understandably anxious about the rising number of American casualties in Iraq, where our postwar occupation policies at times seem aimless and uncertain.

George W. BushAll of this is well known and frequently commented upon. One group where the president is thought to enjoy rock-solid support is among his conservative base. Yet even here, there are signs of trouble brewing.

Polls show that the president's approval ratings, still respectably high among the public at large, are quite simply stratospheric among self-described Republicans. Such staples of conservative opinion as talk radio, FreeRepublic.com and the major non-paleo right-of-center periodicals buzz with an enthusiasm for Bush unmatched in conservative circles since the heady days of Ronald Reagan. Talking with people I am acquainted with who belong to quintessential Republican constituent groups – military servicemen, white-collar male professionals, born-again Christians – I find the president to still be held in high regard.

Yet there are signs of trouble in paradise. First there is the anecdotal evidence. When I wrote critically about candidate Bush during the 2000 election, my inbox would flood with missives chiding me for being unfair in my characterizations of his conservative credentials and unrealistic in my political expectations. Just as frequently, there would be impassioned defenses of the man and his policies. In fact, one column where I was particularly hard on Bush elicited the most hostile response I have ever gotten from a conservative reader, who actually sent me an e-mail challenging me to a fight.

Nowadays, my generally milder criticisms of Bush don't seem to provoke much of a backlash and often invite agreement. More surprisingly, when I write favorably about some Bush policy – such as his tax cuts or his support for incremental abortion restrictions – I often get e-mails suggesting that I should be criticizing him for not going far enough. The only time readers were still leaping to Bush's defense would be when I'd express misgivings about the Iraq war, something I generally refrained from after the shooting started. (I wonder if even this would still be the case now.)

Less anecdotally, professional conservatives, the very people who have generally been most reluctant to criticize the Bush administration, are beginning to gripe about some of the president's policies. Conservative think tanks are openly opposing the administration's passivity on health care, for example. Perhaps more representative of grassroots sentiment is some of the grumbling now being heard on the predominantly conservative blogosphere.

Eugene Volokh's co-blogger Phillipe de Croy has called for a Republican primary challenge to President Bush. Paul Cella, blogging on the topic of the impending prescription drug benefit disaster, wrote "This must be why I voted for a ‘conservative' presidential candidate: so I can reap the glorious benefits of socialized medicine, and an expansion in the size of the federal government unlike anything since Lyndon Baines Johnson." He notes that Bush faces a lack of pressure from the organized right, which has seemed content to function as "a set of court intellectuals for a ruling party," "the handmaidens of servitude," and "the functionaries of the Servile State." Steve Sailer has been all over Bush's response to the Supreme Court's awful affirmative action ruling in the University of Michigan case. Bush can forget about libertarian bloggers; even many who normally vote Republican are so fed up with his lack of interest in limited government that they are musing about voting for the unspeakable Howard Dean.

Why this outpouring of criticism of the man many conservatives breathlessly predict will usher in an enduring national Republican majority? As a sequel to dropping serious conservative education reform in favor of giving Ted Kennedy the big-government education bill he wanted, Bush is dropping serious conservative Medicare reform in favor of giving Kennedy the big-government Medicare bill he wants. (The latter promising to be a massive boondoggle that will impose staggering costs on future generations to come.) To follow up on his decision to cave on the free speech-strangling McCain-Feingold campaign finance travesty, he is caving on Second Amendment rights by backing a renewal of the assault weapons ban. He has apparently decided that as long as the Sandra Day O'Connor pays lip service to color-blindness 25 years from now, ruling in favor of a more surreptitious regime of racial preferences is A-OK. He's willing to spend federal money on constitutionally dubious "marriage promotion" initiatives but has yet to take any proactive steps to curb the growing judicial threat to traditional marriage.

Then of course there is the steel and lumber tariffs, the PATRIOT Act, the decision to sign ridiculously bloated farm and transportation bills and the refusal to veto wasteful federal spending. Rather than address porous borders and an immigration policy that lends itself more to balkanization than Americanization, the administration treats us to Karl Rove's schemes for illegal alien amnesties. The list goes on.

Yes, every single Democrat vying to replace Bush is far worse. No, I'm not saying we necessarily need to find a Pat Buchanan II to draw first blood against President Bush II. Bush's record is not without accomplishment and, in fact, he has been considerably exceeded my dismally low expectations of him from the 2000 campaign. I voted for him even then and unless there emerges some evidence that even his more hysterical critics are right, I will do so again. It is not my intention to be one of those right-wingers who would rather criticize Bush than the left.

But I do confess to a certain irritation with conservatives who don't seem to think anything is more important than having a president or other elected official with an "R" next to their name when they appear on C-SPAN. The problem isn't really Bush. It is that conservatives don't really expect anything of Republican leaders. Enough liberals were willing to risk losing the presidency in 2000 to rebuke the New Democrats by voting for Ralph Nader over Al Gore. Many are willing to risk losing it again for a principled Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.

What will conservatives be willing to risk in order to contain the growth of government, to preserve the traditional understanding of marriage, to uphold the American national identity? It often looks like not much, but there are some signs this might be changing.

President Bush still has ample time to right some of these wrongs and secure his base for the 2004 elections. Conservatives still have time to exert pressure on a president they have some influence on to further their values. If the latter does not occur, we should not blame the president. We only get the leaders we deserve.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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