In a recent column, I suggested that George W. Bush would likely win an overwhelming victory next year, given the weakness of the Democratic field. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru agrees, but he makes the important point that this prospect is not necessarily good for conservatives. The prescription drug subsidy bill before Congress is a good example of why this is the case.
The conventional wisdom among political professionals has long been that candidates run at their party's base during primary season and toward the middle during the general election. This means that Democrats run to the left and then to the right. Republicans do the opposite, running first to the right and then pivoting leftward.
This is clearly what is going on in the Democratic Party, as the most leftward candidate, Howard Dean, has most of the momentum right now. This stands to reason since only the party's most ideologically committed members are even paying attention to the candidates at this point. The danger for the Democratic Party is that John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman will divide up the mainstream vote, thereby making Dean a genuinely viable candidate for the nomination.
The result for Bush is that he could possibly win the biggest victory in history without having to work very hard for it. One would think that such a prospect would embolden him to stand firm on conservative principles. Since he doesn't need to move to the left to win, he can afford to stay comfortably on the right.
The irony is that he is doing exactly the opposite. Because the Republican rank-and-file is so happy with Bush over his delivery of tax cuts and their desire to support him in the war or terror, he doesn't need to move rightward to secure the base. This has allowed him to position himself for the general election -- moving leftward, toward the center -- at an early stage of the campaign.
The prescription drug subsidy bill is Bush's signature issue in this triangulation maneuver. By supporting such legislation, he deprives Democrats of the one issue on which they might win next year. Unfortunately, Democrats like Ted Kennedy know how badly Bush wants a prescription drug bill and are driving a hard bargain. As with the 2001 education bill, Bush is effectively allowing Kennedy to dictate terms.
Conservatives in Congress are appalled by White House demands that they hold their noses and vote for the biggest expansion of government in 30 years. What is the point, they ask, of having control of the White House and Congress if it is just to enact Democrat big spending programs? Better to be back in the minority, many say.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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