The final straw

Bruce Bartlett

10/18/2005 12:05:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

The White House appears to have been truly blindsided by the vehemently negative response from conservative intellectuals to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. In truth, this is a revolt that has been long in the making. The surprising thing is that it has taken such a long time for it to come out into the open.

 The truth that is now dawning on many movement conservatives is that George W. Bush is not one of them and never has been. They were allies for a long time, to be sure, and conservatives used Bush just as he used them. But it now appears that they are headed for divorce. And as with all divorces, the ultimate cause was not the final incident, but the buildup of grievances over a long period that one day could no longer be overlooked, contained or smoothed over.

 From the conservative point of view, the list of grievances is a long one, dating back to the first days of the Bush administration.

 -- One of President Bush's first actions in office was a vast expansion of education spending with little real reform in return. To conservatives, it has always looked like a transparent effort to buy off the so-called soccer moms. But rather than buy peace with the education lobby, it has simply led to continuous calls for still more education spending, despite the paucity of evidence correlating spending with achievement.

 -- Almost all conservatives view campaign finance reform as a blatantly unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court's endorsement notwithstanding. Now it may end up being used to suppress blogs and other new media that have been critical for conservatives in breaking the liberal monopoly of the mainstream press.

 -- It is the rare conservative who has a kind word for the Bush immigration policy. Most conservatives think that he has been woefully weak on protecting our borders. Among the grassroots of the Republican Party, there is active hostility to administration plans to allow illegal immigrants to have guest-worker status. Most see this as a form of amnesty that will further encourage illegal immigration.

 -- Even leaving aside national defense and homeland security, government spending has exploded during the Bush years. Although the vast proliferation of pork-barrel spending, which President Bush steadfastly refuses to veto, has gotten most of the attention, far more worrisome has been the expansion of entitlements, especially the extraordinarily ill-conceived Medicare drug benefit. In future years, Republicans will rue the day they passed this legislation, because they are eventually going to have to cut it, thereby losing all the political benefits they thought they would get among the elderly.

 -- Government regulation got a big boost from passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, which Republicans rushed through Congress to deflect criticism over the Enron scandal. But the fact is that nothing in the legislation would have prevented Enron's financial abuses -- a fact proven by a new scandal involving stockbroker Refco, which appears to have engaged in Enron-style financial shenanigans that are now being investigated by authorities.

 I could go on, but the point is that George W. Bush has never demonstrated any interest in shrinking the size of government. And on many occasions, he has increased government significantly. Yet if there is anything that defines conservatism in America, it is hostility to government expansion. The idea of big government conservatism, a term often used to describe Bush's philosophy, is a contradiction in terms.

 Conservative intellectuals have known this for a long time, but looked the other way for various reasons. Some thought the war on terror trumped every other issue. If a few billion dollars had to be wasted to buy the votes needed to win the war, then so be it, many conservatives have argued. Others say that Bush never ran as a conservative in the first place, so there is no betrayal here, only a failure by conservatives to see what he has been all along.

 Of course, this doesn't say much for the conservative movement. At best, conservatives were naive about Bush. At worst, they sold out much of what they claim to believe in.

 The Miers nomination has led to some long-overdue soul-searching among conservative intellectuals. For many, the hope of finally turning around the judiciary was worth putting up with all the big government stuff. Thus, Bush's pick of a patently unqualified crony for a critical position on the Supreme Court was the final straw.

 Had George W. Bush demonstrated more fealty to conservative principles over the last five years, he might have gotten a pass on Miers. But coming on top of all the big government initiatives he has supported, few in the conservative movement are inclined to give him the benefit of a doubt any longer.