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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bush's Base Betrayal
Once he took office, conservatives were willing to grant this Bush a honeymoon. We were happy when he proposed tax cuts (small, but tax cuts nonetheless) and when he pushed for a missile defense system. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and conservatives came to see support for the president as an act of patriotism.

Conservatives tolerated the No Child Left Behind Act, an extensive intrusion into state and local education, and the budget-busting Medicare prescription drug benefit. They tolerated the greatest increase in spending since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. They tolerated Bush's failure to veto a single bill, and his refusal to enforce immigration laws. They even tolerated his signing of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul, even though Bush's opposition to that measure was a key reason they backed him over Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2000 primaries.

In 2004, Republican leaders pleaded with conservatives -- particularly religious conservatives -- to register people to vote and help them turn out on Election Day. Those efforts strengthened Republicans in Congress and probably saved the Bush presidency. We were told: Just wait till the second term. Then, the president, freed of concern over reelection and backed by a Republican Congress, would take off the gloves and fight for the conservative agenda. Just wait.

We're still waiting.
But conservatives don't blame the current mess just on Bush. They recognize the problem today is also at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

For years, congressional Republicans have sold themselves to conservatives as the continuation of the Reagan revolution. We were told that they would take on the Washington special interests -- that they would, in essence, tear down K Street and sow the earth with salt to make sure nothing ever grew there again.

But over time, most of them turned into the sort of unprincipled power brokers they had ousted in 1994. They lost interest in furthering conservative ideas, and they turned their attention to getting their share of the pork. Conservatives did not spend decades going door to door, staffing phone banks and compiling lists of like-minded voters so Republican congressmen could have highways named after them and so there could be an affirmative-action program for Republican lobbyists.

White House and congressional Republicans seem to have adopted a one-word strategy: bribery. Buy off seniors with a prescription drug benefit. Buy off the steel industry with tariffs. Buy off agribusiness with subsidies. The cost of illegal bribery (see the case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham) pales next to that of legal bribery such as congressional earmarks.

In today's Washington, where are the serious efforts by Republicans to protect unborn children from abortion? Where is the campaign for a constitutional amendment to prevent liberal judges from allowing same-sex marriage?
But unhappy conservatives should be taken seriously. When conservatives are unhappy, bad things happen to the Republican Party.
If conservatives accept the idea that we must support Republicans no matter what they do, we give up our bargaining position and any chance at getting things done. We're like a union that agrees never to strike, no matter how badly its members are treated. Sometimes it is better to stand on principle and suffer a temporary defeat. If Ford had won in 1976, it's unlikely Reagan ever would have been president. If the elder Bush had won in 1992, it's unlikely the Republicans would have taken control of Congress in 1994.

At the very least, conservatives must stop funding the Republican National Committee and other party groups. (Let Big Business take care of that!) Instead, conservatives should dedicate their money and volunteer efforts toward conservative groups and conservative candidates. They should redirect their anger into building a third force -- not a third party, but a movement independent of any party. They should lay the groundwork for a rebirth of the conservative movement and for the 2008 campaign, when, perhaps, a new generation of conservative leaders will step forward.
Conservative disaffection for George W Bush is nothing new. It started even before he was the GOP nominee for President in 2000. His use of the phrase "compassionate conservative" was taken as a sign that he was actually trying to separate himself from those horrible, mean conservatives who don't care about the less fortunate. (That's untrue and an unfair characterization.) It's similar to his father's use of the phrase "kindler, gentler nation," which could only be taken as a slap at Ronald Reagan.

I went through many of the reasons I dislike Bush in this posting written before the 2004 election, so I'm not going to bother to repeat them here. Suffice it say, they're mostly all still true and have only gotten more egregious. And this is before his problems with cronyism really came to light following the Katrina debacle.

So what's the path forward for conservatives? Here's a few ideas:

We must cut Bush off immediately. No more lame defenses of him. We don't need to keep him popular any more to keep a Democrat out of the White House. He won't the the next Republican nominee for President; we can let him sink.

This will have a few advantages. First, it will create a separation in voters' mind between conservatives and Bush. We won't be seen as "hired shills" for the GOP and we won't be as likely to be blamed for the failure of many of his policies. It will give us greater standing in the GOP as it will show our loyalty isn't guaranteed, it must be earned.

Next, let's stop working to elect all the Republicans we can. There's a (very) few acceptable Democrats out there, Let's find them; get them into office. The conservative movement was originally built with the help of Democrats; let's do it again. Don't be afraid to work for Democrats who we can work with if the GOP candidate is unacceptable. We shouldn't work to elect someone just because they have an "R" after their name on the ballot. Make then earn our vote and our efforts. No more making nice-nice with the Mike Castles of the political world. If they're close to the edge in an election, let them slip off it if they don't agree to certain policies we should expect of people we support.

I did this years ago: stop giving to party committees. Only give directly to candidates. Dallars speak in politics; make sure they speak loud and clear: conservatives will get our money. Moderates and liberals won't.

I'm torn as to whether or not we should physically leave the Republican Party. On the one hand, it's the ultimate statement of disgust, but on the other hand, it abandons the party who at least pays us lip service to those in the party who don't even want to do that. The GOP, like it or not, is the best foothold we have right now. I think an analogy to D-Day may be appropriate. We had to keep storming Omaha Beach because failure was the only other choice. Conservatives aren't a strong enough force to take the Democratic Party over, or even to create a credible 3rd party (and that would only hand domination to the Democrats), so we have no choice to keep storming Omaha Beach in order to ultimately push our way to Berlin.

While I'm not going to go as far as DelaThought and claim to have lost my religion on Bush, I'm definitely sympathetic to his arguments. The reason I'm holding off on any definitive judgment on his Presidency is that Iraq still may be a success. If it is, and it does start a transformation in the Middle East, then Bush will go down as a great President for changing to world. (It will be at least a generation or so before we'll be able to say it succeeded, but if it fails, we'll know before then.) If the Iraq experiment fails, he'll be below-average at best, depending on the long-term effects of his economic policies, which I'm not sure are looking so good right now. There's too much history yet to be written to adequately sum up the George W. Bush presidency at this.

My comments above are based of what's good for the conservative movement, not necessarily what's good for the GOP. We are larger than the Republican Party, and we must stay that way if our vision for America is to be successful. We can't allow ourselves to absorbed as another special interest group in the GOP, the way Democrats have done with blacks. (They know they have black votes, so they don't worry about meeting their needs.) We can't allow the GOP to do the same to us conservatives.

So, go out there, defeat a few "moderate" Republicans, even if it puts a more liberal Democrat in office. Teach 'em a lesson and maybe they'll learn for the future.

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