Dealing with the President's right flank

Posted: Jul 23, 2003 12:00 AM

It is not yet thunder on the right, but President Bush should begin to keep a weather watch for a potentially unstable storm front forming on his right flank. Of course, conservatism is a house of many mansions, and it is a logical impossibility to have policies that satisfy us all. Conservatives are both muscular military interventionists and isolationists; free traders and protectionists; libertarians and cultural traditionalists.

Almost all of us believe we are anti-statist. And yet some of us want morality enforced by the state. Others are cheerfully supportive of rounding up vaguely suspicious-looking Arabs. And in fact, a majority of self-identified conservatives support such federal welfare schemes as Social Security, Medicare and even prescription drug subsidies for seniors. (Although in the last case, most conservative leaders and intellectuals oppose such an expansion of federal entitlements.) But, crosscutting all these varieties of American conservatism is a deeply visceral distaste for political compromise and expediency. And that distaste turns quickly to distrust of conservative leaders when they reach the national governing level

That instinct is the most dangerous phenomena for elected conservative leaders. A prominent conservative accused Ronald Reagan of selling out the Reagan Revolution in the spring of 1981 (he had only been in office a few months). As a conservative political activist since my days as a youth coordinator for Barry Goldwater's 1964 election campaign, I have experienced within my own mind the conflicting urges to stay pure in principle, while still winning elections that make it possible to enact my principles and values. Having campaigned and worked for both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, I understand the challenge that national conservatives have in trying to lead a nation that is a little right of center, but not solidly conservative in its voting patterns.

Yet, conservatives have a strong point when they argue (as Rush Limbaugh did recently regarding prescription drug subsidy legislation) that what good is it to elect conservatives who don't govern conservatively in order to win the next election (when, theoretically, they will be free to let their conservatism flower). In the interest of candor, I should note that in making that point, Rush thoroughly thrashed my editorials supporting President Bush's prescription drug bill, which passed the House by one vote.

This is why politics is an art, not a science. Whether a liberal or a conservative, a president must intuit the narrow point at which his base is still motivated to strongly support him but is not fully satisfied. As Richard Nixon once observed, if your base is happy, you are doing something wrong. That is not a cynical observation but a practical one. Unless you can persuade 50 percent plus 1 of the electorate to share your view, you have to appeal to at least some voters beyond your base.

And, as only about 35 percent of American voters are conservatives, President Bush needs to pick up the difference through some combination of: the strength of his personality, leadership, policy compromises and shrewd campaigning. Conservatives (both rank-and-file and activist) tend to think that leadership should be sufficient to that end. Professional political advisors almost invariably lean hard toward policy compromise. A successful conservative elected leader must not listen too much to either of those siren songs.

Currently, conservatives of various stripes are beginning to complain about: large deficits, prescription drug entitlement legislation, excessive regulations (including education regulations driven by Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation), weak opposition to quotas, acceptance of the Supreme Court's anti state's right overthrowing of anti-sodomy laws, and -- for the substantial Pat Buchanan wing of the conservative house -- what they would call military adventurism and imperialism.

It is hard to measure the potential breadth and intensity of these complaints because President Bush's exemplary leadership in the war on terrorism continues to trump these and other concerns for most Americans -- whether conservative or otherwise. But, although that factor will probably continue to buoy up his support through the next election, Mr. Bush should not rely on it. Should the anti-terrorism factor slip in the public mind, it could reveal a dangerously weak base of enthusiasm for the president.

He doesn't have much maneuvering room. The deficit is large primarily because of lost revenue from the economic slow-down and because of war- and terrorism-related expenses (that amounts to 75 percent of the deficit, the other quarter comes from the tax cut -- which conservatives like).

On the prescription drug bill, the president could help himself considerably by fighting hard for more market mechanisms while the bill is in conference. The word coming from the White House is they will take whatever Congress passes. Conservatives correctly don't like to hear that. Even those of us on the practical side of conservatism want the president to fight for the best bill he can get -- not Ted Kennedy's version.

But on the war front, he should not compromise an iota. He must do what he judges to be in the national interest, whatever the electoral effect. Not that he needs my advice on that point. He is a patriot and would gladly sacrifice his career, and even his life, on behalf of his nation's safety. That is why, as a conservative, I will vote for him, no matter what. We are damned lucky to have this man at the helm in these perilous times.