Not So Keene

Election '04

Will George W. Bush suffer defections from his conservative base this fall?

Fret not, says American Conservative Union president David Keene, in his recent essay published in The Hill: Unlike with his father 12 years ago, conservatives will stand firmly behind this President Bush.

"There was no talk of a primary protest against the current president this year for the simple reason that, while we might oppose such things as his Medicare prescription drug program and believe he could do far more to cut government spending, few believe he's abandoned us or the principles we like to believe we represent," Keene writes. "No president is perfect, but most conservatives believe that this is one who deserves another term."

That's right, Mr. Keene. Or more aptly, that's the Right -- willing to compromise on niggling matters of principle, like small government and fiscal responsibility, in the interest of the broader conservative agenda of...well, what, exactly?

Conservative crack-up

The indictment that any true conservative could issue against Bush is manifold. Let's take a quick timeout to examine the bill of particulars, including as it does the following:

  • He has endorsed altering his own proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to permit civil unions, a position now virtually identical to that of almost every Democratic presidential candidate this year -- save for the reckless approach of tinkering with the Constitution to establish the marriage v. union distinction.

  • He hasn't shown the guts to back a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and is curiously quiet about abortion, an issue he says the country "isn't ready" to address. (And here I thought this president leads from his heart, regardless of polls or popularity.)

  • He first supported protectionism for the steel industry in 2001, angering steel purchasers, then flip-flopped on the tariffs issue in 2003, angering steel producers.

  • He championed the extension of farm subsidies to the point where the federal government now doles out more money to agribusiness than the industry generates in tax receipts, making it a net-loss industry on welfare that's supported by the taxpaying public.

  • He opposes the re-importation of prescription drugs made by U.S. pharmaceutical companies, a position that conflicts with the very free-market principles he pretends to espouse.

  • He supported attempts by the Federal Communication Commission to consolidate the major media, a position that is both anti-competitive for the media markets as well as the marketplace of ideas broadcast by those media.

  • His No Child Left Behind education-testing initiative epitomizes the sort of federal mandate that normally gags the "states' rights" crowd, a boondoggle for testing companies that does little more than force state administrators to learn what they already know -- namely, which schools in their state are performing well, and which are not.

  • His Medicare prescription program represents the largest expansion of the fastest-growing portion of the federal budget -- so large, in fact, that the Administration had to lie to its Republican allies in Congress about the measure's actual cost estimates to get them to vote for it.

  • He seriously underestimated the costs of the Iraq war, and the oil revenues that were supposed to pay for a reconstruction that our taxpayer dollars are instead subsidizing, forcing him to ask for an additional $25 billion in war funding beyond the $87 billion previously appropriated.

  • As a collective result of several of these actions, this year Bush proposed the largest budget deficit in American history.

Now, try this fun little experiment, Mr. Keene: Imagine Al Gore were president right now, and had taken these positions and actions. You'd be writing a column about what a big-government, anti-market, fiscally-irresponsible, reckless, myopic, liberal socialist Gore is. And yet every one of these items is on Bush's resume.

For all the complaints progressives have made that Bush left the "compassionate" part out of "compassionate conservative," it seems the President has left the "conservative" part out too. Is it any surprise that conservatives are finding Bush an increasingly tough pill to swallow?

And they are. Key conservative donors are bailing on, instead of bailing out, Bush. Paleocon Bob Novak confirms that some unnamed GOP members of Congress (who must live in swing states) disapprove Bush's ads on education and prescription drugs running in their states because the spots turn off the Party's base. And lest one think fissures exist only on the domestic side, E.J. Dionne Jr. nicely summarizes the "conservative crack-up" over Bush's Iraq policy, too.

Bush is struggling to find policy wins among conservatives at home and abroad. As a Dennis Hastert spokesperson finally admitted, this whole business of actually governing is a lot harder than just complaining about it from the sidelines. For Bush, governing conservatively has proved even trickier.

What core principles?

Yet conservatives like Mr. Keene stand firm. This, I submit, signals that the conservative movement has abandoned its principles. So drunk with its own power, conservatives have forgotten what they stand for, or choose not to stand at all. They are quite willing to sacrifice anything and say anything to achieve and maintain power.

Geez, wasn't that the hammer these same conservatives used to pound Gore? When George Will - you know, the man who assured us in 2001 that the grown-ups had regained control of the White House - starts to lose faith by wondering publicly about the Administration's "moral confusion," you know the conservatives are in trouble.

And there will be no comfort on November 3 if Bush comes crashing down hard. The 1992 conservative defection has always provided people like Mr. Keene with an all-too-convenient excuse: The father's loss was self-inflicted by conservatives, and thus Bill Clinton's two victories were little more than half-victory aberrations.

No such excuse is available in 2004. What Keene and other conservatives should fear is that the younger Bush, his right flank fully covered, will lose anyway, thus becoming the first incumbent president during the modern era of presidential primaries to run without any serious intra-party opposition in the primary and still lose the generation election. Put most simply, Bush will have lost despite keeping his base (mostly) in line.

Four in a row?

Should that occur, the GOP will have finished second in the popular vote in four consecutive presidential elections, including the last two with its conservative base secure. Republicans will be forced to look back -- in anger? -- all the way to the 1988 election to find a ticket that finished first.

Rather than relaxing in the knowledge that the conservative faithful will be there for Bush this November, Mr. Keene and those of his ilk may want to start thinking about the implications of that solidarity. Because Bush could lose to a progressive Democrat who outpolls him, no less while fending off the Naderite defections Keene gleefully mentions.

Such an outcome hasn't happened since -- when was it? Oh, right: the last election.

Thomas Schaller is Executive Editor of Gadflyer.

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