Disgruntled conservatives

Posted: Oct 30, 2002 12:00 AM

"A Record Year for Academic Pork," said the headline on the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading trade publication of the academic world. Whether representatives of farmers, corporate welfare recipients, and other beneficiaries of politicians' generosity with the taxpayers' money are equally candid is another story.

Runaway spending on social programs is just one of the things that have made some conservatives disappointed or disgruntled with the Bush administration. His signing the campaign finance reform bill, leaving it to the Supreme Court to declare its blatant unconstitutionality, his protectionism for the steel industry, which will probably end up costing more jobs than it saves, and his failure to push for school vouchers, are also among their complaints.

It is hard to know how good a card player anyone is without knowing what cards he was dealt. George W. Bush was dealt a very weak hand, and he has probably gotten as much mileage out of it as anyone could have. First of all, his paper-thin election margin in the Electoral College -- and loss in the popular vote -- gave him no real mandate. His narrow margin in the House and even narrower margin in the Senate gave him little clout on Capitol Hill, even before the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords gave the Democrats control of the Senate.

Given these circumstances, the only way for President Bush to get anything done was to make deals with the devil. Otherwise, the next time the Republicans came before the voters, either in the congressional elections of this year or in the presidential elections of 2004, they would have nothing to show. That could result in turning the federal government over to the Democrats for the indefinite future.

Given the demographic realities -- a growing proportion of non-white voters -- Republicans cannot remain a viable party if all the different racial and ethnic groups continue to vote as they have in recent times. The Republicans' only real hope is to make inroads into the Democrats' virtual monopoly of minority votes. And the only way to do that is to do things that will win away some of those minority voters from the Democrats.

Without power, you can do nothing. And if the only way to do something is to make deals with the Democrats, then what other viable options are there?

Academic pork and pouring more billions of tax dollars down a bottomless pit of failing schools are part of those deals. If conservatives don't like such deals, their only effective way to oppose them is to give the president and his party enough power of their own that they don't have to keep making deals with the devil.

Staying away from the polls in disappointment is not going to do that. That can only enhance the power of the likes of Ted Kennedy, Pat Leahy and Hillary Clinton.

The September 11 terrorist attacks confronted President Bush with a situation where he could rise to the challenge without being dependent on a congressional majority. Now, with his strong support from the American people, as a result of the way he has handled himself and handled the war on terrorism, all he needs is a Congress that can forward his agenda, at home and abroad.

To the extent that disgruntled conservatives stay home out of disappointment with the Bush record thus far, they threaten to give power to liberal Democrats. The arrogance with which the Senate Democrats are stonewalling and savaging judicial nominees when they have only a one-vote majority is just a foretaste of what to expect if they win control of both houses of Congress.

Do conservatives want to see the federal courts loaded down with liberal judges who will be turning more criminals loose, imposing racial quotas, and in general disregarding the law, in favor of the political agenda of the left? Those could be the only kinds of judges who can get confirmed if the Democrats hold on to control of the Senate.

Both conservatives and liberals can only make their choices among alternatives actually available. Will unhappy conservatives recognize that before they decide to stay home on Election Day? President Bush needs to be dealt a better hand. He has already gotten about as much as he can get out of the one he has.