Off-base: Bush strayss more to the middle

Posted: May 17, 2002 12:00 AM
Much of the country has grown to love President Bush since Sept. 11, giving him the highest and most sustained approval ratings of any president since polling began. Good for him. Me, I liked the pre-9/11 Bush better. Around this time last year, conservatives were very, very happy with President Bush. Right-wing activist Grover Norquist told The New York Times, There isnt an us and them with this administration. They is us. We is them. Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, said the Bush administrations relationship with conservatives was the best hed ever seen including Ronald Reagan. In fact, far superior to Ronald Reagan. This lovefest was grounded in substance, psychology and strategy. On the substance side, Bush pushed for and passed a whopping tax cut. He appointed real conservatives to his cabinet, where real conservatives were badly needed. He pulled the United States out of the ABM and Kyoto Treaties. Bush also reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, which linked anti-abortion policies and foreign aid. He wouldnt let America be mau-maued by Third World racists and kleptocrats at the U.N. Conference on Human Rights. He spoke of (partially) privatizing Social Security, even though the conventional wisdom said this was stupid. He talked about God and meant it, another conventional wisdom no-no. On the psychological side, Bush wasnt Bill Clinton or Al Gore. This is more of an accomplishment than it sounds. Bush set a new tone or, more accurately, restored an old one. He didnt make a big fuss over things, like when our EP-3 aircrew returned from China. Right or wrong, most conservatives, me included, found Clintons and Gores styles more reprehensible than their substance. Especially in the wake of the Florida recount and Clintons pardon-sale scandal, it just felt so darn nice to have a decent, humble and legitimately conservative guy in the White House. Who cared if hes not eloquent off the cuff? Hes real. And then there was strategy. Prior to Sept. 11, the dominant lesson Bush and his adviser Karl Rove learned from Poppa Bushs experience was to keep the base happy. This didnt require doing everything the conservative rank-and-file wanted; governing, after all, always requires making compromises with political realities. But it did require caring about what they thought. Unfortunately, since Sept. 11, the Bushies have taken down the proverbial its the base, stupid sign from the office bulletin board and replaced it with its the lead, stupid. You see, the other major mistake of the first Bush presidency was then-President Bushs reluctance or refusal to capitalize on his enormous popularity after the Gulf War. The Senior Bush basically sat on his lead in the polls and allowed the Democrats to carp and whine about the absentee president. Other than winning the Gulf War, he had few accomplishments he could point the average voter to, especially during what the media called a severe recession. Meanwhile, conservatives saw Poppa Bushs flip-flop on his no new taxes pledge and his willingness to let congressional Democrats run domestic policy as a betrayal. Pat Buchanan stepped into the void on the right and severely damaged Bush in the primaries. The rest, as they say, was eight years of Bill Clinton. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the reigning rule has switched from defend your base to dont blow your approval ratings. The rationale seems to be that the conservative base is safe because Bush is doing a good job on the war on terror and this in turn gives him room to run to the middle on a host of issues. In just a few months, weve seen President Bush sign a campaign finance law even he considered unconstitutional. He agreed to outrageous and politically motivated tariffs on steel and lumber. He signed the most non-kosher (as in full of pork) farm bill in a generation. Hes letting his own judicial nominees twist in the wind. He signed an education bill only Ted Kennedy could love. In fact, Ted Kennedy co-sponsored it. He hasnt threatened any vetoes, which has allowed Democrats to roll over him on issues like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Bushs defenders, in and out of the administration, claim that hes forced to make these political concessions so Republicans can win back the Senate and get a more manageable lead in the House. Then, with a Republican wind at his back, Bush can tack back to the right, at least on issues like trade, judges and affirmative action. I hope theyre right. But there are a few problems with this strategy. First, it disregards the fact that once this political season is over, the 2004 presidential season will make all sorts of new demands on the president. But more important, this strategy assumes Bush will always be good on the war on terrorism. The administrations recent pin the tail on the terrorist games with Yasser Arafat made many conservatives worriedly ask, If Bush cant tell Yasser Arafats a terrorist, then whats this war about? Moreover, the war on terrorism will continue for a long time. Conservatives want a good commander-in-chief, but thats not all they want in a president.