In signing the campaign finance reform bill last week, President George W. Bush has demonstrated his own version of "compartmentalization": fighting for core values about which he cares deeply, but seemingly ditching principle in pursuit of pragmatic politics on a range on other issues.
Guiding a shocked and grieving nation in the wake of 9/11, Bush showed a remarkable sense of moral clarity, which later prompted him to highlight the now-famous "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address. Bush has maintained his stratospheric popularity in large part because he has the courage of his convictions and is able to draw bright lines in the war on terror. But on issues farther from the President's heart, Bush is willing to jettison sticking points or conservative ideals altogether.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush vowed he would veto the "unconstitutional" McCain-Feingold version of campaign finance reform. But then Enron happened. The Enron debacle never really caught traction, but in fairness to Bush, maybe that was because he moved to embrace the unconstitutional bill he once opposed.
As the House leadership was gearing up for battle, Bush literally cut GOP leaders' legs out from under them by declaring last-minute support for the bill, pushing Republican Congressmen on the fence to vote in favor of campaign finance reform.
Though clearly breaking his own promise in backing something loathed by conservatives, Bush made an odd gesture of compromise with the GOP base. At the signing non-ceremony, the President issued an official statement that he had "grave concerns" about the constitutionality of the very bill he was putting his signature on.
With the embryonic stem cell debate last summer, Bush established the pattern he has followed on several controversial issues: a long period of deliberation, followed by a "compromise" resolution that more or less leaves conservatives out in the cold. His procedure for that Solomonic decision has been followed with campaign finance reform, steel tariffs, and the Senate confirmation of Judge Charles Pickering.
Bush wrestled with his conscience on whether or not to grant industry and labor requests for 40% tariffs on steel imports. In the end, he settled on levies of up to 30%, but made clear it would be a temporary
measure. In short, conservatives backing free trade got shafted.
On another front, Bush let down conservatives with an honest mistake. When it became clear to anyone not living under a rock that Pickering's appellate court nomination was in trouble, Senate Republicans waited on Bush to defend his nominee, and the President apparently was waiting for GOP Senators to first mount some sort of defense he could use as a foundation. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a personal friend of Pickering, finally got his troops out of the gate, but the damage had already been done. Pickering was pilloried as a racist, then as a renegade, even though he was neither.
Bush held a press conference, where he came out swinging, defending his judicial nominee in the strongest of terms. He castigated Senate Democrats for unfairly maligning a "respected and well-qualified" judge, and he further condemned liberals for undermining the process with their ideological battles. Only problem was that Bush made these bold statements the day before the confirmation vote, when Pickering's fate had already been sealed. The President by no means sabotaged Pickering; he simply misjudged the timing.
Although Bush has not always delivered for conservatives, it's important to keep things in perspective: even the Right's patron saint, Ronald Reagan, sold out conservatives from time to time. Reagan signed into law several tax increases, something our current President is not likely to do.
Bush's goal is not to undermine conservatives, but rather to husband his political capital and preserve his popularity for the long-term. To fully appreciate Bush's overall record, it is important to remember that a President must use political capital sparingly in order to remain effective. In other words, if Bush were to spread himself too thin, his ability to help on truly important issues would be diminished, but this
is not to say that campaign finance reform and Pickering's nomination were
not truly important.
Conservatives have been dismayed by Bush's inaction on some of their pet causes because they have seen other areas where he has dug in-and won. On tax cuts, Bush relentlessly promoted his plan from day one, and he picked off enough key Democrats to ensure passage. His efforts have even resulted in two-thirds support for his tax cuts, according to a recent USA Today-Gallup poll. On health care, Bush went on the offensive late in the game, but still in time to defeat liberal attempts to create a trial lawyers' bill of rights.
A big question mark on the horizon is how Bush will handle the looming budget battles. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels has consistently preached the need for fiscal restraint on domestic programs in these times of war, but it remains to be seen if Bush will force Congress to hold the line on spending. Conservatives need to get out in front of that issue and make it politically popular for the President to threaten vetoes of bloated bills.
The lesson conservatives need to learn is that although Bush is an outstanding President, he is not going to carry water for conservatives on issues not particularly near and dear to him. If conservatives do not adjust their strategy accordingly, they will inevitably be disappointed by "compromises" eventually endorsed by President Bush.