I thought President Bush's State of the Union address was fine. It wasn't outrageously long. He drew a bright line between himself and his critics on the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, Social Security Reform, etc. He delivered it well, and the nudity was tasteful and integral to the plot.
As luck - or bad timing - would have it, I was invited to Manhattan to address the New York State Conservative Party right before the president addressed the nation. It seemed only fitting since the subject of my speech was the conflict between Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and traditional conservatism. You see, conservatives in New York City have suffered more and for longer than conservatives in the rest of America. Trust me, I grew up on New York City's Upper West Side. We felt like Christians in Ancient Rome.
Well, after three years with George W. Bush at the helm, many conservatives are starting to feel like we've been sent to the catacombs. Don't get me wrong. Out in real America where most Americans - liberal and conservative - don't focus on politics every day, Bush is still doing very well. And, even among conservatives, Bush has considerable political support. But among ideological and intellectual conservatives, emotional support for Bush is starting to ebb.
I can't point to anything scientific. But if you pay attention to what conservatives are saying at meetings and in magazines, on the Web and at the think tanks, as well as what readers, friends, colleagues and sources say, there's a definite undercurrent of discontent with the president.
For some it started with his plan to offer amnesty-lite to illegal immigrants. For others, it's his fence-sitting on gay marriage. For others, like me, it was his signing of the campaign finance reform bill even though he thought it was unconstitutional. Or maybe it was his support for steel tariffs. Or the farm bill. I forget.
Anyway that doesn't matter. What unites pretty much all of these grumblers is a deep sense of, well, disgust with how much this administration is spending.
When it comes to taxpayer dollars, this is the second most "generous" administration in American history, second only to that of another Texan, Lyndon Johnson. There may be good aspects to George Bush's "compassionate conservatism," though on the whole I never liked it, but it's clear that compassion doesn't come cheap at the Bush White House, on whose watch overall spending from 2001 to 2003 grew at 16 percent and discretionary spending went up 27 percent. That's double Bill Clinton's rate.
Bush's defenders are eager to point to the war on terrorism as an excuse for increased spending. Fine. But that's only a small part of the story.
Under Bush, spending on education has gone up 60.8 percent, on labor 56 percent and on the Department of the Interior by 23.4 percent . The price tag for the president's Medicare plan alone starts, but won't end, at $400 billion. The farm bill was a pork horror show, pure and simple. More people work for the federal government now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation sums it up this way: "Overall for 2003, the federal government spent $20,300 per household, taxed $16,780 per household, and ran a budget deficit of $3,520 per household."
The reason most Americans haven't heard a lot about all this is twofold. Conservatives have stayed relatively quiet and liberals have controlled the anti-Bush microphone.
Democratic presidential candidates and interest groups have been screeching that the president is gutting education and abandoning the elderly. Obviously this is nonsense on tall stilts, since Bush is spending a lot more on both than Bill Clinton ever did.
In fact, on Medicare and education, for example, the Dems think Bush is being stingy. And a study by the National Taxpayers Union found that each and every one of the Democrats running for president have plans that would raise the deficit even more, from $169.6 billion under Joe Lieberman to - get this - $1.33 trillion under Al Sharpton.
Conservative opposition to such overspending is more complex than the media and the left think. Some just don't like red ink. Others think big government erodes freedom and traditional arrangements. Others believe it slowly inoculates the citizenry to greater levels of social engineering.
Whatever the reasons, conservatives - as opposed to partisan Republicans - have sincere misgivings about the kind of presidency Bush is conducting. A lot of compassionate conservatism is smart politics for the Republican Party, and some of it is even good policy. And, yes, conservatives understand that the GOP is practically the only place they have a real impact in electoral politics.
But I'm not sure George Bush understands how much he is asking from those who brought him to the dance.