Bush's shaky base

Posted: May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- During George W. Bush's keynote address to the 40th anniversary black-tie banquet of the American Conservative Union (ACU) last week, diners rose repeatedly to applaud the president's remarks. But one man kept his seat through the 40-minute oration. It was no liberal interloper but conservative stalwart Donald Devine.

 As ACU vice chairman, Devine was privileged to be part of a pre-dinner head-table reception with President Bush. However, Devine chose not to shake hands with the president. Furthermore, he is one of about 20 percent of Republicans that polls classify as not committed to voting for Bush's re-election.

 The conventional wisdom portrays the latest Zogby Poll's 81 percent of Republican voters committed to Bush as reflecting extraordinary loyalty to the president by the GOP base. Actually, when nearly one out of five Republicans cannot flatly say they support Bush, that could spell defeat in a closely contested election. When Don Devine is among those one out of five, it signifies that the president's record does not please all conservatives.

 In a time of crisis in Iraq, Bush spent more than an hour at the J.W. Marriott Hotel Thursday night to celebrate the ACU's anniversary and woo his conservative base. His speech was crafted to evoke the maximum response from that audience. There was no mention of either "compassionate conservatism" or "no child left behind "

 Why, then, did Devine dismiss a consciously conservative speech as "long and boring"? At age 67, Devine has spent a lifetime as a party regular and faithful conservative. I first encountered him some 30 years ago when, as a University of Maryland political science professor, he was adviser and strategist for conservatives in rules fights at Republican national conventions. Directing President Reagan's Office of Personnel Management, he was one senior administration official who took seriously the Reagan Revolution. He was a political adviser in Bob Dole's presidential campaigns and ran himself for Congress and statewide office in Maryland.

 So, the question remains: Why would Devine stay seated at the ACU dinner when everybody else was standing and clapping? To begin with, he shares concern with many Republicans about what the U.S. is doing in Iraq and where it is going. Businessmen I have talked to recently exercise limited patience in how long they will tolerate the bloodshed and confusion.

 What most bothers Devine and other conservatives is steady growth of government under this Republican president. If Devine's purpose in devoting his life to politics was to limit government's reach, he feels betrayed that Bush has outstripped his liberal predecessors in domestic spending. A study by Brian Riedl for the conservative Heritage Foundation last December showed government spending had exceeded $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II. Riedl called it a "colossal expansion of the federal government since 1998."

 Curbing this expansion surely has not been on the top of Bush's agenda for much of his time in the White House. Until recently, when a presidential political aide heard conservative complaints about runaway spending, he predictably would point to the partial-birth abortion ban and tax cuts rather than address the grievance. In the last few months, the president's men have talked a better game about spending. Nevertheless, it is too late to satisfy Republicans such as Devine who care deeply about governmental growth.

 Bush is also under pressure from his conservative base to speak more clearly and more frequently against same-sex marriage. At the ACU dinner, he drew one of his many standing ovations by declaring: "We stand for institutions like marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society." That was all he said on the subject in a speech that went on at length about the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

 Bush's saving grace for the 2004 election may be John Kerry. In the end, I am sure Don Devine will cast his ballot for George W. Bush, if only because the alternative is noxious. How many of the rest of that 19 percent of non-Bush voting Republicans in the Zogby Poll will fall in line may determine the outcome Nov. 2. That is the importance of Devine's little sit-down strike.