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Second-term values agenda

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Of all the pre-Inauguration celebrations last week, one shone more brightly than the rest: the Christian Inaugural Eve Gala, with the presence of "The Architect" Karl Rove, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, Attorney General John Ashcroft, White House Public Liaison Tim Goeglein and former Congressman J.C. Watts, among others.

But many of the 800-plus in attendance were tepid -- or worse -- in their assessments of the start of President Bush's second term.

The black-tie affair, held at the Ritz-Carlton, was a mix of Beltway insiders and religious activists from around the country, yet the cynicism could be found among both sets.

Several people at the event talked openly, though off-the-record, of their frustration that President Bush today is not the George W. Bush who was on the stump. One prominent conservative activist pointed to the star-studded lineup and wondered if it was merely a "symbolic show of support."

The sole point of agreement was that Mr. Bush was going to be strong on appointing conservative judges to the federal bench, and hopefully, to the Supreme Court as well. Those who felt that Social Security reform was a moral issue -- and many did -- believed Mr. Bush might make some headway on that issue as well.

But what most concerned attendees at the event was their feeling that Mr. Bush was abandoning his support for a federal amendment banning gay marriage.

Mr. Bush had certainly given them reason at least to question his commitment. Only days earlier, Mr. Bush had sounded unusually pessimistic about the prospects for the federal marriage amendment in an interview with The Washington Post.

When asked how hard he would push the amendment to ban gay marriage, he responded, "The point [is] that senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen. I'd take their admonition seriously."

Much to the White House's chagrin, many base supporters appear to have taken the comment as a larger sign.

Former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer is at best lukewarm about Mr. Bush at the beginning of his second administration. His expectations are low, to say the least. Conveying the feelings of many, Mr. Bauer says, "It's almost like a woman who's constantly disappointed with her husband or boyfriend who keeps forgetting her birthday or anniversary."

White House officials are well aware of the disenchantment in the base. In what seemed sincere comments, one official stressed that Mr. Bush was as committed as ever to passing the marriage amendment. The White House wishes people would be a little more understanding of the uphill climb. "The amendment last time got 48 (votes). It needs 67. You do the math," another official noted.

But at least one trouble spot concerning the White House appears to be something of a non-issue to the base. When JoAnn Davidson -- a longtime member of Republicans for Choice -- was named co-chairman of the RNC recently, many Christian conservatives from her home state of Ohio howled. Yet almost none of the grassroots social conservative leaders interviewed for this story raised it as an issue.

Not all news with the base, however, is bad. The Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which was the primary sponsor of the Christian ball, was thrilled to have such a strong turnout from the Bushies.

After being asked in an interview if he is optimistic about Mr. Bush's second term, TVC President Rev. Lou Sheldon responded, "The answer is emphatically yes." He didn't believe that the president backpedaled on gay marriage -- Rev. Sheldon's pet issue -- in The Washington Post interview.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, however, noted that he never heard Mr. Bush on the campaign trail talking about how unlikely it would be to get the Senate behind the federal marriage amendment. Nonetheless, Mr. Perkins, who was not at the Christian gala, says he has "high expectations" for the second Bush term. He chalked up the marriage misstep to "the wrong people whispering in the president's ear."

With mixed emotions among the base right now, the White House knows it needs to provide reassurance to get the entire team back on board. And if the president wants to add personal accounts to Social Security, he'll need every supporter he can muster, including Christian conservatives.

Christian conservative leaders know they are needed for Social Security reform, and many would like to use that leverage to get the president to spend more political capital to the federal marriage amendment. The real question is who will have to help the other out first.

Joel Mowbray writes occasionally for The Washington Times.