Richard Reeves

Bush's Real Opposition: Republican Conservatives

WASHINGTON -- It looks as if President Bush's honeymoon is over. He's fine with the American people -- his personal approval rating is still in the 80 percent range -- but his own natives, Republican movement conservatives, are already restless.

Like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan before him, Bush is already being branded as an appeaser of liberals and a sellout on a range of issues dear to the right-side hearts of many of his party's faithful. These are, it must be mentioned, impossible people who, more often than not, prefer to lose on principle than win through compromise.

They hate Washington and all it stands for, which is compromise and government of all the people. Unfortunately for them, presidents, even their own, have to work in this town -- and that means compromising, however reluctantly, with the opposition in Congress and the vast bureaucracies of governance and liberal constituencies.

Like baseball, it happens every spring. This year, even with overwhelming conservative (and liberal, too) support of the president in our officially undeclared war on terrorism, there are the right's gripes of the moment:

-- The president from Texas, lusting for Hispanic votes in his own state and in California, is too friendly with Mexico, pushing amnesty for illegal immigrants from south of the Rio Grande and San Diego.

-- He has sold out free-traders by imposing old-fashioned tariffs on the import of foreign steel -- or he is just chasing Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

-- He may have been holding his nose when he did it, but he signed the campaign-finance reform bill pushed by Democratic senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and apostate Republican senator John McCain of Arizona.

-- As part of the war effort, he is advocating a 50 percent increase in the United States' minuscule foreign aid program. This one rebukes conservatives who were determined to set in stone the idea that there is no connection between poverty in the poor regions of the world and hatred and terrorism directed at the richest of nations, the United States.

-- He is pushing Israel to compromise in its endless war against the Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

-- He is pushing education policy and legislation that would increase federal influence in states, counties and towns across the country -- a big no-no to movement conservatives.

-- He is not pushing tax cuts the way he did during the campaign, partly because war and educational reform cost huge amounts of taxpayer revenues.

Most of this was bound to happen, and any ideological president, Republican or Democrat, is eventually forced to betray campaign promises and core constituencies. The only difference this time is that because of continuing public support for military action (and its high costs), Bush is beginning to take more flak from his own kind than from the loyal opposition.

In the conservatives' favorite newspaper, The Washington Times, political columnist Donald Lambro began a news analysis last week by saying: "President Bush's about-face on trade tariffs, stricter campaign-finance regulations and other deviations from Republican doctrine is beginning to anger his conservative foot soldiers but does not seem to be cutting into his overall popularity -- yet."

John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union, puts it this way: "We're very disappointed about these new tariffs on steel and lumber. That's two new tax hikes on the American people. ... There's a concern among our members that in his effort to build and keep this coalition for the war, which is certainly needed, he's given Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the forces of big government a free pass."

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, added: "He's been getting a pass from us until now, but the amnesty bill is what tipped it over for us. I agree with Sen. Robert Byrd (a Democrat). This is 'sheer lunacy.' ... A lot of people thought Bush's education bill was terrible. But we didn't rant and rave about it because we wanted to support him on the war. That's changed. The amnesty bill is the hot issue out here. It's out of sync with what grassroots Americans want."

Finally, Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said: "The danger for us is that Bush may begin to take the conservatives for granted, and you are seeing some signs of that happening with the steel tariff decision, foreign aid and other spending increases in the budget."

So it goes. There is nothing new about this. In the 1970s, William F. Buckley and other movement conservative leaders publicly "suspended" their support of President Richard Nixon because of what they considered his liberal moves toward welfare reform, tariffs and other issues considered part of the liberal domestic agenda -- to say nothing of his reaching out to communist China.

But in the end, Nixon kept them in line by pushing the war in Vietnam beyond reasonable limits. George Bush could accomplish the same political goal of uniting conservative support by continuing to push the war on terrorism into far nooks and crannies of the whole world.

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