President still waves the conservative flag

Donald Lambro

1/4/2007 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush approaches the last two years of his presidency bogged down in an unpopular war and drawing fire from his conservative base for enlarging the size of government.

Whatever course Bush decides to take in Iraq in an attempt to stabilize the country and preserve its fledgling democracy, he believes deep down inside that his decisions to replace terrorist dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan will stand the test of history. And I think he will be proven right.

As bleak as things look right now, Bush's advisers believe that planting the seeds of democracy in the midst of these terrorist breeding grounds is the only way to combat a fanatical Islamic movement that still threatens the safety and security of the West.

As chaotic as things seem, these governments, still in their infancy, are going to survive. They have made mistakes and no doubt will make others, as our young government did before them. But Bush believes, as I believe, that these free and independent governments will exist long after he has left office and that they will ultimately triumph over the terrorists.

The critical question in Iraq is how can we ensure its survival and combat the terrorists while reducing America's central role in the war? The way to do that is to change our strategic mission there. It must shift from a frontline of defense to one of training a much larger Iraqi military, with logistical backup and the use of air power when needed, and continued economic aid.

We know from history that a lengthy war cannot be sustained without the support of the people. The public wants the Iraqis and the Afghans to overcome the terrorists because Americans know instinctively that will make us safer. And they are willing to spend what it takes to achieve that objective. But they want them to take over the brunt of the fighting so U.S. ground combat troops can begin coming home.

Bush also faces yet another challenge at home to overcome a deterioration of support among his party's base. The chief criticism that led to weakness in Republican turnout in the November elections: Bush (and Congress) has broken faith with the GOP's long-held belief in limited government.

The president, his conservative critics say, has increased non-defense spending significantly -- from the No Child Left Behind education initiative to the prescription-drug benefit program. Republicans in Congress added tens of billions of dollars to the spending spiral in an orgy of pork-barrel projects stuffed into waste-ridden appropriations bills.

The Republicans, in fact, outdid the Democrats in the pork-barrel game -- pushing so-called earmarked spending provisions to record levels. Bush did not veto any of their big spending bills.

But there is another part of his domestic record that needs to be taken into account to get a true measure of his presidency thus far -- initiatives his critics rarely mention when they charge he has betrayed conservative principles. The biggest fiscal achievement of his presidency is the $1.7 trillion in tax cuts that helped the U.S. economy overcome the blows inflicted by the 9/11 attacks, the corporate accounting scandals and Hurricane Katrina.

Those tax cuts are conservative free-market economics at its best, and they are the reason why our economy remains -- through wars and numerous domestic disasters -- the strongest and most affluent in the world.

No conservative reform is bigger than the idea of privatizing Social Security, a revolutionary notion that most Republican leaders were afraid to embrace. Bush not only proposed it but he ran for president on its merits and traveled around the country arguing for its implementation.

That he did not succeed is beside the point. He was willing to spend a lot of his political capital for a gigantic conservative idea: freeing workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds to create wealth. It's unlikely Bush can resurrect his proposal in the next two years, but he has boldly opened a path for a future president to follow and deserves great credit for the boldness of his attempt to bring down the last pillar of the New Deal welfare state.

Even his prescription-drug program, which expanded entitlements at a time when they are going through the roof, has turned out to be far less expensive than its critics forecast. Democrats and Republicans wanted something bigger and costlier and would have gotten it, too, but Bush won a more limited and price-competitive alternative.

Presidents never do everything we want them to, and Bush is no exception. But on some of the biggest ideas of conservative orthodoxy he has been willing to enter the arena, take some big risks and fight some big battles, winning some and losing others.

Win or lose, these initiatives need to be added to the scorecard when we measure his presidency against all of the others.