- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

As 4,000 conservative activists converge on Washington for their annual Conservative Political Action Conference

planning session, they face the accusation that the movement's organizations are dormant and even in decay.

While sponsors cheer a record 70 participating groups, the charge is that they have no clout.

"Conservatives should be grateful that [President George W.] Bush is as conservative as he is, since they have no independent power to force him to be so," claims Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review. This lack of muscle denies the president useful allies and provides no political push to the right to combat that from the left, he claims. But he overestimates the power of organizations, left and right. It is the right-wing equivalent to the left's exaggerated fear of business pressure groups. It has always been ideas that have been decisive.

The most important fact about Mr. Bush is that he was won over to conservative ideas, partially by himself, partially learning from his father's mistakes and partially from Ronald Reagan's ideas and their success.

Rather than being grateful, conservative groups should be proud of their role in selling ideas to all those who have advanced the Reagan Revolution.

These were not just ideas, but big ideas that made a big difference. A CPAC conference must think broadly.

President Bush has created his own revolution in foreign policy. This resulted not from his war on terrorism but from his reshuffling of the whole world power equation. Only one country had the ability to annihilate the United States when he entered office and that power is now an ally, a permanent one if he plays his cards correctly. The switch of Russia from opponent to partner is of historic importance and will be remembered long after Afghanistan and al Qaeda are forgotten. He has moved gigantic India westward too, and here Pakistan's role in the U.S. alliance has actually been an obstacle. He has also kept his word to reduce U.S. troop commitments in Bosnia.

The credit is all Mr. Bush's and he deserves support. Yet, ideas circulate until they work or die and conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union were pushing this realignment long beforehand.

On the domestic scene, President Bush has been as good as the right could ask on the litmus issues for economic conservatives of taxes and for social conservatives of right to life policy. With the Congress split in half, not much more could be expected. Yet, there are two domestic policy areas where conservatives need to convince rather than force President Bush of the need for action.

First, welfare state spending is going off the charts. The president first drew the line at a 4 percent increase as the most that could be afforded last year.

Even before September 11, his officials conceded a 6 percent increase. By the end, spending increases not primarily for anti-terrorism efforts reached 8 percent and are heading higher for this year. The surpluses are gone and Social Security bankruptcy veers ever nearer. Historically, nations die from insolvency more than war, as Argentina can attest. The president needs a plan that makes his compassion work. He supports faith-based initiatives but he needs to prioritize the tax credit aspect and turn tax credits into a strategy for a full replacement for the dead hand of the national welfare state bureaucracy in health, education and welfare.

Second, that bureaucracy needs to be tamed. The first MBA president has taken an interest in management and reportedly can cite agency achievement goals. He revoked Bill Clinton's abominable labor-management councils that gave unions too much power and management not enough. He recently exempted Justice anti-terrorism agents from union bargaining units. Silly games keep occurring like settling a perfectly legal "special rate" case that deferred pay raises until their annual review for an incredible $173 million, but it was not Mr. Bush's fault. However, political staffing vacancies (including the top management official at the Office of Management and Budget) in the year-old administration no longer can be ignored and demand a strategy bolder than placidly waiting for the Senate to stop playing politics.

President Bush should appoint Senior Executive Service noncareer officers to fill these positions on an acting basis indefinitely if necessary for these appointments do not need the approval of the Senate. It is for emergencies like these that such executive powers exist.

Conservatives can hardly be blamed because conservatives like Mr. Bush are in power. When they are, those on the right need only to convince essentially conservative decision-makers that their principles can be translated into effective policies. CPAC is the perfect forum to begin impressing upon officials many of whom will attend the importance of good conservative ideas that can make a big difference.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.


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