Tags: Right-wing | Rift

Right-wing Rift

Monday, 02 February 2004 12:00 AM

That was plain at the 31st annual Conservative Political Action Conference the other day in suburban Washington. Although most attendees still enthusiastically back the Bush-Cheney ticket, a number of widening fissures continue to be ignored or sloughed off by the White House. They could cause real problems for the president's re-election campaign.

While it wasn't a presidential election year, 1998 may offer the best historic parallels for the 2004 vote. I think about the lessons of 1998 often.

Although I won my third term in Congress that year, Democrats gained seats and the campaign as a whole represented a regrettable turning point. The bold, energetic message that swept the GOP into the congressional majority in 1994 took a midcourse, 180-degree turnabout - never again to embrace the true fiscal conservancy that had been the majority's hallmark.

The Republican leadership consciously opted one month before the November vote to buy safety for GOP incumbents in both houses. They loaded a massive omnibus spending bill with so much pork you could hear it squeal in Peoria.

Each incumbent perceived to be in trouble was asked what he or she wanted or needed in the spending bill to win votes back home. Few resisted the carrot - not realizing there was a hickory switch close behind in the form of conservative backlash.

The leadership crowned its strategic folly by displaying a tin ear with its tactics: Passage of the bloated spending bill came just days before the November vote.

The results were sadly predictable. Conservatives, correctly perceiving the fiscal sellout as an effort to buy votes - something the GOP always had attacked the Democrats for doing - saw a ticket little distinct from the other party's. They stayed home in droves.

Republicans nearly lost the majority and, within a few weeks, Newt Gingrich announced he was stepping down.

The conservative revolution, which had given us welfare reform, a huge tax cut and a balanced budget - all the direct result of Republican congressional stubbornness against the Clinton administration - packed its bags and went meekly home, resurfacing only briefly in the impeachment proceedings a month later.

Under the second Bush administration, federal spending, which was held at bay during the heyday of the Gingrich revolution, has reached near double-digit annual increases.

Even worse, fiscal credibility is a thing of the past. President Bush's promise last year to hold discretionary spending increases under 4 percent lasted about as long as it took to deliver the 2003 State of the Union address.

This year, the president renewed his broken promise to keep increases below 4 percent. Understandably, that promise was met with skepticism and grousing at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference.

It's not just the philosophical point that upsets conservatives. They know that those elections in which the GOP tries to spend its way to victory, by essentially touting itself as the "Democrat Lite" party, are the same elections in which we don't do well.

Sometimes we do quite poorly. Going from a budget surplus to Clinton-era deficits isn't exactly a recipe for turning out the conservative vote.

It's not only administration spending that has conservatives upset. The recently announced immigration "reform" that grants amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants (but doesn't call it amnesty) has conservatives fuming.

Not only will such a policy make it more difficult to secure borders, but the proposal thumbs its nose at much of what conservatives stand for: respect for the law, limited and rational immigration, and limits on social welfare spending.

Although the administration tries its best to argue that rewarding illegal immigrants for being here illegally will "strengthen" our borders and "help" control immigration, no one else can make such arguments with a straight face.

Go down the list of other values important to conservatives - the Second Amendment, respect for privacy, returning control of education to the states, fundamental regulatory reform - and you'll find precious few have been supported in any meaningful way by the Bush administration.

Oh, I forgot: The president did offer somewhat vague support of the Federal Marriage Amendment backed by some, but certainly not all, conservatives.

Then, there's the active role the administration has taken in new spending initiatives. The cost of the Medicare drug benefit Bush signed last fall will rival, if not surpass, the trillions of dollars spent on the poorly thought out Great Society programs of the 1960s. And, in midst of the War on Terror and $500 billion deficits, he proposes sending spaceships to Mars. Talk about big government!

The White House appears to be relying on a two-pronged strategy to win conservatives in November: Trumpet successes in the War on Terror and hope this trumps all other issues; and assume that, in the final analysis, conservatives will vote for the Bush and Cheney because the alternative is much worse.

Such a plan may seem sound theoretically. But, given the closeness of national elections nowadays and conservatives showing in the past that they will stay home Election Day if there's no clear reason to vote, the strategy from a practical standpoint is mighty risky.


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That was plain at the 31st annual Conservative Political Action Conference the other day in suburban Washington. Although most attendees still enthusiastically back the Bush-Cheney ticket, a number of widening fissures continue to be ignored or sloughed off by the White...
Monday, 02 February 2004 12:00 AM
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