WASHINGTON--Reports of tensions between George W. Bush and conservatives are appearing in media that are often uncomprehending of, unsympathetic to, and fond of finding conflicts among conservatives. The reports concern something real, but by focusing on conservative activists in this city, the reports ignore Jonathan Swift's warning that it is folly ``to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.''
Some conservatives are caught in a time warp. Bush is, second only to Ronald Reagan and not second by much, the most conservative president in living memory. And Bush is, as successful leaders tend to be, lucky.
Lucky? Three Bush decisions, all contradicting long-standing Bush positions, dismayed conservatives who care deeply about free speech (he signed campaign finance reform legislation), free trade (he imposed steel tariffs that will be ineffectual without being innocuous) and Israel's freedom (he began speaking the way the State Department thinks). Then Al Gore gave a speech.
At a Democratic confabulation in Florida, Gore reprised his paint-by-numbers populism of 2000 (``we stand with the little guy'') and said (BEG ITAL)nothing about today's largest issue, Israel's peril. Suddenly, conservatives remembered.
They remembered what Bush never forgets: that the country is tied, politically. That in 2000 half the country favored Gore. That three consecutive elections have produced merely plurality presidents, that at the end of the 19th century five consecutive elections did that, and that the 2004 election might.
Gore was nonsensical in saying ``the differences between our parties have never been sharper.'' Sharper than in 1860? 1964? 1980? In 2000, Bush sealed the Republican Party's acknowledgement that the government is, because a vast majority insists on it, involved in assuaging the two great fears of life--illness and old age. He and Gore agreed that the emblematic achievement of the New Deal, Social Security, must be strengthened, and that the emblematic achievement of the Great Society, Medicare, should be enriched with a prescription drug entitlement.
The conservatism that defined itself in reaction against the New Deal--minimal government conservatism--is dead. However, Bush has positioned his party as pro-choice where it will matter most to most Americans in coming years--regarding education (freedom to choose among public and private schools), Social Security (freedom to invest a portion of Social Security taxes in private retirement plans) and medicine (government assistance that fosters freedom to shop for care).
But some conservatives, addicted to disgruntlement, still have the oppositional mentality that characterized conservatism between the coming of Franklin Roosevelt and the departure of Jimmy Carter. In that era, conservatives felt doomed to perpetual disappointment as marginal critics of an uncongenial political culture.
Many older conservatives retain this oppositional mentality because they are older: Habits, (BEG ITAL)especially intellectual ones, die hard. Many younger conservatives have an oppositional mentality for two reasons. It is fun--it feels heroic--being an embattled church-militant in an unconverted world. And the conspicuous culture--the media and campuses--are hostile.
However, conservatives should stop feeling like victims. The campuses have made themselves risible. And talk radio, the Fox News Channel and Washington's conservative think tanks have made conservatism a more than merely equal participant in political arguments.
Of the three Bush decisions that conservatives rightly
abhorred, two--imposing tariffs and refusing to veto the campaign finance legislation (he has vetoed nothing in 15 months)--are not likely to establish patterns. Campaign finance reform is finished for now, and Bush cannot have enjoyed the reaction, here or abroad, to his protectionism.
The most important of his three mistakes--his ``evenhandedness'' regarding Israel and the terrorist Yasser Arafat--probably is self-correcting: He knows which delusional advisers mistakenly assured him that if he issued commands to all parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he would be obeyed. And regarding his first 15 months:
Judging by his nominees so far, Bush will splendidly staff the federal judiciary (half of it, if he serves two terms), but not until Republicans control the Senate. They will be more apt to do that if he campaigns on the issue of judicial activism.
His tax cuts will do more than Republican congressional majorities would do to limit government activism. His education bill deeply disappointed only those conservatives who mistakenly want education reform driven by Washington. And concerning the most momentous policy problem, conservatives cannot fault either the substance of Bush's decisions on biomedical matters (cloning, stem cells) or the seriousness with which he has arrived at that substance.
Which is why conservatives in the capital should be more like conservatives across the country: on balance, quite pleased.