At what price?

Posted: Aug 05, 2003 12:00 AM

In recent weeks, George W. Bush has started to come in for the first meaningful criticism from mainstream conservatives during his presidency. While nascent, it could become the only real barrier to his re-election next year unless dealt with quickly.

To be sure, there are those on the right who have been critical of Bush since Day One. But at least since the World Trade Center attack, such criticism has been mostly confined to fringe publications and websites that do not represent the mainstream of conservative thought. Therefore, it is significant when people like Rush Limbaugh, George Will and William Safire all begin attacking Bush from the right and comparing him to Richard Nixon.

Although those on the left view Nixon as an archconservative, there is really precious little evidence for such an opinion. As president, he did almost nothing that was fundamentally inimical to the liberal agenda. Had Bill Clinton been president during those years, I believe that his policies would have been little different from Nixon's. They were classic "New Democrat" policies -- split the difference between right and left, and declare victory. But, since the left controlled the agenda, the result was always to move in a leftward direction.

I remember as a college student reading the most virulently anti-Nixon attacks not in left-wing publications, but in those on the far right. The John Birch Society, for example, just hated Nixon. And though it is mostly forgotten, Rep. John Schmitz, Republican of California and Nixon's own congressman (he represented San Clemente), ran against him in 1972 and got over 1 million votes in the general election. I doubt that many liberals were among the total, since Schmitz advertised proudly his John Birch Society membership.

Schmitz emphasized Nixon's liberal domestic policies -- he established more regulatory agencies of any president since FDR, raised taxes, busted the budget and spilled red ink, imposed price controls, and caved-in to Soviet demands for an anti-ballistic missile treaty, among other things. Substantively, there was absolutely no reason for any conservative to support Nixon in 1972 except that he was better than George McGovern -- the most left-wing Democratic nominee since William Jennings Bryan.

No doubt, that is the same reason why most conservatives supported William Howard Taft against Bryan in 1908. But the result was that Taft signed into law the federal income tax and created a national bank for the United States (the Federal Reserve), two cherished liberal ideals that Bryan never could have accomplished. Only a Republican president could have rammed these measures through a Republican Congress.

Conservative dismay over Taft's liberal agenda led directly to massive Democratic gains in Congress in 1910 and his own loss in 1912. The same dismay over Nixon's liberal agenda led to massive Democratic gains and his ouster from office in 1974.

I am sorry to say that I see Bush traveling the same path. He has concluded that the Democrats are very likely to nominate a candidate so far to the left as to be unelectable. Howard Dean's ascension to the head of the Democratic pack supports this conclusion. But ironically, rather than making Bush feel more comfortable pursuing a conservative agenda, he continues to move left on domestic issues -- especially the budget-busting prescription drug subsidy bill.

Bush has also signed into law a campaign finance reform bill that most conservatives view as blatantly unconstitutional, endorsed an education bill written by Ted Kennedy and initiated more trade protectionism by any president since Nixon. But against these, Bush continually plays his trump card: the war against terrorism. And just as Nixon played the anticommunist card in terms of the Vietnam War, it has been enough to keep most Republican voters under control -- so far.

The only substantive difference between Nixon and Bush, in terms of policy, is that the latter cut taxes while the former raised them. Of course, there are also important personal differences. Nixon was sleazy and dishonest, while I don't believe that such can be said about Bush. But if it turns out that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- the reason why most people who supported the war supported it -- then he is going to have a "credibility gap" as big as Nixon's to overcome.

Even so, I think Bush is a "lock" for re-election, regardless of whom the Democrats nominate. Yale economist Ray Fair predicts he will get 56.7 percent of the vote based on economic data already in hand. If the economy does better than expected, his vote total will only rise.

But conservatives still need to ask themselves: to what end? Do we want another Taft or Nixon, who imposed liberal policies no Democratic president could achieve as the price for keeping a Republican in the White House? It is a question worth asking.