It would be difficult to find a more committed supporter of President Bush than Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Pence, who is in his second term, is a self-described "Christian-conservative-Republican, in that order." He is the essence of the Bush base, which is why his Jan. 22 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering in Washington ought to cause concern at the White House. After testifying to his pro-Bush (and pro-Reagan) credentials, Pence suggested that the "ship of conservative governance has gone off course."
Pence's indictment included this line: "... many who call themselves conservatives see government increasingly as the solution to every social ill and - let us be clear on this point - this is a historic departure from the limited-government traditions of our party and millions of its most ardent supporters."
Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration apparently believe they can buy the votes of a number of groups - including the elderly (prescription drug benefits) and Hispanics (amnesty for illegal aliens) - but once a federal law or policy is in place it is more difficult to kill than a vampire.
In his speech to CPAC, Pence pointed to the Department of Education as one of many examples of government gone wild: "A decade ago, when I first ran for Congress, Republicans dreamed of eliminating the federal Department of Education and returning control of our schools to parents, communities and states. Ten years later (we get) the 'No Child Left Behind Act' ... our Reaganite beliefs that education was a local function were labeled 'far right' by Republicans and the president signed the bill into law with Ted Kennedy at his side."
About prescription drug benefits for seniors, Pence said many conservatives were prepared for a limited program, "but instead of giving the president what he requested, the Congress - the land of the $400 hammer - (created) the largest new entitlement since 1965, a massive one-size-fits-all entitlement that would place trillions in obligations on our children and grandchildren without giving any thought to how we were going to pay for it."
Pence added, "Conservatives know that if you reject these principles of limited government and urge others to reject them you can be my ally, you can be my friend, but you cannot call yourself a conservative."
There is a heated debate in the ranks of President Bush's most ardent supporters about whether they should go public with their concerns and risk hurting his reelection chances. One of those debates is taking place within the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose president, Ed Feulner, has written two recent newspaper columns criticizing out-of-control spending. He is supported by the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office which show that the fast economic growth and low inflation are not enough to eliminate the federal deficit, which is projected to hit a record $477 billion this fiscal year, but might have vanished had Republicans not engaged in an orgy of spending.
One Heritage executive e-mailed me, "As a mom who is trying to teach my children about conservative values, the vision of our Founding Fathers and how faith in God - not the government - is our answer, how do I explain that federal spending has increased more under George Bush than it did under Bill Clinton? How do I tell them how important it is that we work to get Bush (re)elected and then explain that they will be (saddled) for the rest of their lives paying for huge government programs, such as Medicare reform, that he championed?"
These good questions and criticisms are significant because they come from conservative friends of the president. As Pence said in his CPAC speech, to ask such questions "is not a sign of disloyalty, but of true loyalty to principle."
Are they listening at the White House? Perhaps they think they can dismiss conservatives with the familiar, "Where else can conservatives go?" They can "go" into inaction or they can stay home and not vote. It has happened before.
Ask President Bush No. 41, who raised taxes after promising he wouldn't. He later said it was a major mistake, but too late to win him reelection. In a close election people of principle can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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