- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

President Bush's about-face on trade tariffs, stricter campaign finance regulations and other deviations from Republican doctrine is beginning to anger his conservative foot soldiers but does not seem to be cutting into his overall popularity yet.

Mr. Bush has made several decisions in recent weeks that have infuriated conservative leaders here and out in the grass roots. He is pushing for amnesty to illegal immigrants in the border-security bill in an attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters. He imposed higher tariffs on imported steel sought by the industry in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He said he would sign the campaign finance reform bill that he opposed in his campaign. And he wants a 50 percent increase in foreign aid, a program that conservatives have been fighting for decades.

Mr. Bush's increasing pressure on Israel to make further concessions to the Palestinians also has triggered growing criticism from conservative commentators. George Will said yesterday in his syndicated column that the president's foreign policy in the Middle East "has become incoherent."

"The danger for us is that Bush may begin to take the conservatives for granted and you are seeing some signs of that happening with the steel tariff decision, foreign aid and other spending increases in the budget," said anti-tax crusader Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth.

Yet with an overall 80 percent job-approval rating in the polls including 90 percent of all Republicans there is no evidence thus far that these and other departures from party positions have weakened the president's broad support among voters.

Conservatives say that up to now they have been giving Mr. Bush a pass on some issues such as his education bill, which has put the government more deeply into state and local school policy than ever before. But the cumulative impact of his more recent moves has many of them raising their voices in protest for the first time.

"He's been getting a pass from us until now, but the amnesty bill is what tipped it over for us. I agree with Senator Robert Byrd. This is 'sheer lunacy,'" said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum in Alton, Ill., a nationwide women's activist organization.

"A lot of people thought Bush's 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 is the hot issue out here. It's out of sync with what grass-roots Americans want," she said.

Mr. Moore is upset with what he says is Mr. Bush's "unwillingness to fight this year for a true fiscal stimulus bill," and doesn't find much to cheer in the rest of his domestic initiatives. "I have to give him an A-plus for his foreign policy but only a C-plus for domestic economic issues," he said.

"When Bush has this high approval rating, he is able to govern more from the middle. As a conservative, this makes me nervous," Mr. Moore said.

"There's a concern among our members that in his effort to build and keep his coalition for the war, which is certainly needed, he's given [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Daschle and the forces of big government a free pass," said John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union.

"We're very disappointed about these new tariffs on steel and lumber. That's two new tax hikes on the American people," he said.

However, a few issues have failed to trigger much attention from conservatives, some leaders say. The campaign finance bill is one, says Mrs. Schlafly. "It's a nonissue at the grass roots because people feel the money is going to be there and flow into other areas."

But other strategists say most conservatives are sticking with Mr. Bush and are giving him more latitude on some issues because of the war on terrorism or because they think the president needs more political maneuvering room in this year's elections.

"These issues are important to discrete elements in the party, but he hasn't breached core conservative doctrine on issues such as a strong defense, foreign policy, taxes or social issues like abortion," said Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation, who tracks political movements in Congress and around the country.

"Within that context, as long as he is staying true on these core areas, he's not going to have any major problems with his political base. Everything I've seen says he is still the catalyst of strength for the Republicans in this election cycle," Mr. Franc said.

"The number one issue of this president is to win the war, and conservatives will cut him a lot of slack to maintain domestic unity," said Marshall Wittmann, political analyst at the Hudson Institute.

"If you take the war out of the picture, it's unlikely Bush would have this extreme latitude. He is every bit the populist figure to conservatives despite the disappointments in some circles," Mr. Wittmann said.

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