A less conservative Bush?

Posted: Jan 24, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- As happy conservatives gathered in Washington last week to celebrate the presidential re-election of one of their own, haunting questions were raised for some of them. Now that George W. Bush never will have to face the electorate again, is he sidestepping toward the middle? Is he looking more like his father and less like Ronald Reagan?

 The inaugural address, which evoked lavish praise from many Republicans attending the ceremonies, sounded less conservative than neo-conservative in advocating a global crusade for democracy. But it was not the speech that generated unease among some of President Bush's staunchest supporters. A re-elected president's speech at his inauguration is not supposed to be an ideological manifesto. 

 Instead, concern about Bush's second-term course is derived from a variety of signals, small and large, coming from the White House. None of them separately signifies a president abandoning the principles upon which he was elected. But taken together, they generate doubt and more than a little unease on the right.

 -- In pre-inaugural comments, Bush sounded defeatist about prospects for a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage. After campaigning on the issue last year, he appeared resigned to failure in the Senate this year.

 -- The second-term nominations abound with officials who are comfortable personally with George W. Bush, but do not necessarily follow an ideological course. The first round of nominations contained names provoking outrage on the left: John Ashcroft, Ted Olson, Gale Norton, Linda Chavez (whose nomination was withdrawn) and John Bolton. The second round is less combative.

 -- The State Department appears likely to be dominated by careerists under Condoleezza Rice more than it was under Colin Powell. There seems to be no place for Bolton, the conservative bulwark at State as under secretary for arms control since 2001.

 -- The new co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, Jo Ann Davidson, has been a member of the abortion rights group Republicans for Choice since its founding 15 years ago. While handpicked at the White House for the party post, she has opposed the president's position on abortion.

 The selection of Davidson incurred the wrath of conservative Christian leaders in her home state of Ohio, but it was perhaps the least troubling of the inaugural week indicators. An old party war-horse and the first woman speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, Davidson did yeoman service in carrying her pivotal state for Bush last year while Republican Gov. Bob Taft was no help at all. She has promised conservatives not to address any pro-choice Republican groups while serving as party co-chairman and pledged support for every part of the president's program.

 The new State Department team is more worrisome. Nick Burns, a foreign service officer named to the department's third-ranking post as under secretary for political affairs, is close to the John Kerry foreign policy team and probably would have had the same position if Bush had lost. There is no Bolton-type conservative stalwart in the second-term lineup.

 The biggest inaugural week concern for the conservative movement was Bush's Jan. 16 interview with the Washington Post, when he was asked whether he would expend his political capital to push the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Bush replied: "The point is that senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act, barring gay marriages] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen. I'd take their admonition seriously."

 On NBC's "Meet the Press" that day, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush "will spend political capital" to pass the constitutional amendment. In his acceptance speech Wednesday as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman hailed the "promotion of marriage." None of that satisfied social conservatives, who note that Bush has not sounded defeatist on Social Security reform just because the odds are against him.

 It cannot be disputed that George W. Bush's tone has changed since the election. The 22nd Amendment, prohibiting a third presidential term, is a two-way street. I reported last month that even loyal Republican lawmakers feel less constrained to follow a term-limited president. But that same president is under far less pressure to obey the demands of his political base.