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An opportunity for conservative senators

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 18, 2005

George W. Bush is no green-eyeshade Republican. He has presided over the biggest inflation-adjusted federal spending binge since Lyndon Johnson. A Cato Institute policy analysis published in May concluded that even excluding defense and homeland security expenditures, Bush is the biggest-spending president of the last 30 years.

So what does the Republican-controlled Senate do? Outspend him.

USA Today reported that Senate Republicans were recoiling from the administration’s proposed budget cuts. GOP appropriators, led by such old-timers as Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, are busting through discretionary spending caps by $12 billion and planned cuts are being transformed into spending increases.

Your party of limited government and fiscal responsibility at work.

To some, this is the price of Republicans wielding power. When Congress passed the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the biggest new federal entitlement in 30 years, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “This week the G.O.P. behaved as a majority party in full.”

The majority in the upper chamber has been especially quick to leave grassroots conservatives behind. As a whole, Senate Republicans are to the left of their House colleagues on spending, taxes and social issues.

This creates an opportunity for the Republican politician who dares to stand with his party’s conservative activists, phone-bank workers and envelope-stuffers. Nearly every senator is a potential presidential candidate and the contest for the 2008 Republican nomination is wide open. With Rudy Giuliani and John McCain considered front-runners, the GOP field has a void on the right.

Conservatives can benefit if senators compete to be their ’08 candidate.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Over a decade ago, when Bill and Hillary Clinton unveiled their national health-insurance plan, many GOP congressional leaders were initially inclined to negotiate. Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole signed onto a scaled-back alternative crafted by liberal Republican Sen. John Chaffee.

Then-Sen. Phil Gramm, seeking to establish himself as the conservatives’ candidate in the next presidential election, came out swinging. He organized a traveling panel of senators and congressmen to tour the country and rally opposition to the Clintons’ proposal. He rejected compromise and the very idea of government-provided national health insurance. Dole, himself a presidential aspirant, was forced to protect his right flank by moving in Gramm’s direction.

As 1994 wore on, conservatives were able to decimate public support for Hillarycare. The bill died a slow, painful death. And it all happened when Republicans were still in the minority in both houses of Congress.

The ensuing Dole-Gramm competition to establish right-wing bona fides also defeated a controversial surgeon-general nominee opposed by pro-life activists, pushed welfare-reform bills to the right and somewhat increased the pace of conservative legislation in a Senate notorious for its inaction on the House’s Contract with America items.

Conservative senators, empowered by such procedural tools as the filibuster and the hold, could make a similar effort to ingratiate themselves with their party’s base. They could exert pressure from the right on judges, spending and cultural issues. And in the process they could make themselves more serious presidential contenders.

There are, of course, some reasons Senate conservative activism might not be as viable today as in 1993-96. For one, right-wing firebrands would be revolting against their own president and party leadership instead of Bill Clinton. Second, Gramm was able to credibly threaten Dole’s conservative credentials because he was widely considered a top-tier candidate in a way that the senators best-positioned to follow in his footsteps – Sam Brownback, Rick Santorum – are not.

Finally, even party activists don’t always follow Capitol Hill minutiae closely enough that such maneuvers will necessarily pay the requisite political dividends. Gramm was trounced in the early 1996 primaries. Voters seeking a conservative alternative to Bob Dole looked elsewhere.

Yet this race will be different, without a Reagan, Bush or Dole. Instead there are many relatively unknown contenders, some of them ideologues looking for a bully pulpit while others have key GOP voting blocs to reassure. To advance their own interests, these prospective candidates would do well to advance conservative causes.

Rank-and-file conservative voters are looking for leadership. Republican senators who desire to be president – and wish to overcome the electorate’s preference for governors over legislators – have an opportunity.

Who among them will rise up and seize it?

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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