Conservatism's march

Michael Barone
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Posted: Feb 06, 2006 12:05 AM

It was a big week for Republican leaders. On Jan. 31, Ben Bernanke was sworn in as Federal Reserve chairman and Samuel Alito was sworn in as the 110th Supreme Court justice. On Feb. 2, House Republicans elected John Boehner of Ohio as their new majority leader. And on the day Bernanke and Alito were sworn in, George W. Bush delivered his fifth State of the Union Address to Congress.

 The chief focus was on the State of the Union. There were two halves to the speech, separate but unequal. Bush spent the first half of his speech vigorously defending his handling of Iraq, as he has since November, and sending messages to the rulers and people of Iran.

 That nation, he said, is "now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people," and that regime must not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons.

 In contrast, he hailed the people of Iran and said "our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran." Fine words -- if they're backed up by vigorous efforts to encourage and aid those who seek freedom there.

 Bush also defended vigorously the National Security Agency's surveillance of communications between suspected al-Qaida terrorists abroad and persons in the United States.

 It is conventional wisdom in much of the mainstream media and among many Democrats that Iraq and the NSA program are politically damaging to Republicans. Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, clearly disagree. In a speech to the Republican National Committee earlier last month, Rove insisted that national security will be a central theme for Republicans this year, and Bush's speech indicates that he will take the offensive on that issue.

 Democrats would like to take national security off the table. But rather than stand and applaud Bush on the NSA surveillance, almost all of them sat glumly in their chairs, hostages to the left-wing blogosphere and billionaire contributors whose furious and often obscene denunciations of Bush and the war on terrorism set the tone for the whole party.

 In the second half of the speech, on domestic issues, Bush addressed issues that threaten to demoralize his conservative base -- spending, immigration and scandal -- and advanced proposals designed to win bipartisan support -- an Advanced Energy Initiative to address our supposed addiction to oil, science and math teacher training, and portable health insurance coverage.

 These are not likely to trigger the stonewalling opposition that Bush's call for individual investment accounts in Social Security did last year (although expanded health savings accounts will). They give Bush some basis to claim he is seeking bipartisanship. "Our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger," he said early in the speech -- and if Democrats respond in anger, as they so often do, they can be portrayed as a party not ready to govern.

 Conservatives are complaining, with some justification, that Bush is taking a detour from the conservative path. He is at least trying to change the conversation. But the other Republicans who rose in prominent positions last week have had careers that remind us that that path is long, and that progress is being made despite some detours.

 In the 1980s, Ben Bernanke was an economics professor at Stanford and Princeton -- now he runs the Fed. John Roberts and Samuel Alito in the 1980s worked in obscure corners of the Reagan administration. Now they appeared in the robes of justices of the Supreme Court, where they join Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who had higher positions in the Reagan government.

 John Boehner was an Ohio legislator in the 1980s and was first elected to the House in 1990, the year of the House bank scandal, and has never gotten a single earmark for his district. But as chairman of the Education Committee, he proved himself an able manager of both partisan bills and of bipartisan legislation, on education and pensions.

 These men are part of a long march through institutions. When Boehner started off in Ohio, Democrats had a stranglehold on state politics. Roberts and Alito in law school encountered few conservative professors; now, there is a substantial body of conservative jurisprudence. When Bernanke was an undergraduate, Keynesianism was still regnant; now, the economics professor has much greater respect for free markets.

 Bush's staying the course on national security and detour on domestic policy may or may not produce the Republican victory in November his strategists are so confident of. But conservative ideas now have deep institutional roots.