- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

After 14 months in office, President Bush is coming under fire from some frustrated conservative leaders who think he has left the ideological reservation too many times.
Anyone who has been following Mr. Bush's performance might well wonder what there is to really complain about.
He has led the United States and the civilized world in a mighty military retaliation against the terrorists who slaughtered more than 3,000 Americans. He has freed the Afghan people and installed a government that no longer poses a threat to its neighbors or us. He has begun a global roundup of terrorists with the help of our friends and allies. He has steered the economy out of a short and shallow recession into a faster-than-expected recovery, with the help of his well-timed tax cuts. Business is improving, manufacturing orders are rising, unemployment is down and consumer confidence is up.
But Mr. Bush has made several decisions lately that have angered supporters in his party's conservative base.
He is pushing a provision in a major border-security bill to offer amnesty to illegal immigrants, a move aimed at Hispanic voters. He is raising tariffs on imported steel to help out steel plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and raising tariffs on Canadian lumber to help the timber industry in the Northwest. He has signed the campaign finance bill that he believes is unconstitutional and that he opposed in his campaign. He has proposed a 50-percent increase in foreign aid spending, which conservatives have been fighting for decades.
There is little or no evidence that these moves have weakened Mr. Bush's popularity, at least not yet. His overall job approval score is running about 80 percent. Among voters who identify themselves as Republicans, it is 90 percent.
Yet, as his father learned to his great regret, the care and feeding of one's political base is critical to a successful presidency. Conservatives have been giving Mr. Bush a pass on some decisions they did not like (the Bush-Kennedy education bill) because of the importance of the war. But lately they have been expressing their disgruntlement much more aggressively.
"The danger for us is that Bush may begin to take the conservatives for granted. You're seeing some signs of that happening with the steel tariff decision, foreign aid and other spending increases," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth.
Phyllis Schlafly, who heads the conservative grass-roots group Eagle Forum, says the president "has been getting a pass from us until now."
"A lot of people thought the education bill was terrible. But we didn't rant and rave about it because we wanted to support him on the war. That's changed. The amnesty bill tipped it over for us. It's out of sync with what grass-roots America wants."
The National Taxpayers Union is angry about the steel and lumber tariffs. "That's two new tax hikes on the American people," NTU President John Berthoud told me.
Even anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, one of Mr. Bush's most loyal conservative supporters, is outraged by his move to sharply boost foreign aid. Numerous studies show that the world's poorest countries remain essentially unchanged, despite trillions of dollars in U.S. aid over the past half century.
"I don't know where the hell that idea came from. Somebody at [the White House] doesn't understand that foreign aid is destructive for all the same reasons that welfare is destructive," Mr. Norquist told me.
Conservative talk show king Rush Limbaugh is one of the administration's biggest critics, especially on the campaign finance restrictions the president has signed into law. Shocked by the absence of any public opinion against the bill, Mr. Limbaugh took the unusual step of devoting more than a week of programs against it. Suddenly, phones were ringing in the Capitol, at the White House and at major organizations on the right.
"Because of Limbaugh, we getting calls from dozens of people who were concerned about it," said Michael Franc, a Heritage Foundation vice president. "Some said it was wrong for Bush to sign a bill he believes is unconstitutional, leaving it for the courts to clean up."
All these grievances have merit, but to a large degree they are overwhelmed by the battle against terrorism and Mr. Bush's leadership skills in rallying the country behind one common purpose. "Conservatives will cut him a lot of slack to maintain domestic unity," says the Hudson Institute's Marshall Wittmann.
Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush's mentor, similarly angered his base when he raised tariffs to win political points with voters, signed the TEFRA tax bill, and agreed to much more spending than he wanted. But Mr. Reagan used his political capital to score the big points by restoring America's confidence, destroying the Evil Empire, and rebuilding the U.S. economy through lower tax rates.
Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush is keeping his eye on the bigger political picture defeating the Democrats in November and winning full control of Congress in order to pass the rest of his agenda: Negotiating free trade agreements, energy independence, lower tax rates for economic expansion, and privatization reforms in Social Security and health care that will last for generations.
In the meantime, despite my own misgivings about some of his decisions, let's keep in mind that Mr. Bush has not breached his party's core beliefs on taxes, defense, a strong foreign policy or key social issues like abortion.
"As long as he stays true on these core areas, he's not going to have any major problem with his political base," Mr. Franc says.
I think he's right.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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