Monday, December 29, 2003

President Bush is beginning to anger certain hard-line conservatives, particularly over fiscal issues, the way his father did in the year before he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

It’s not clear how deep the dissatisfaction goes, and whether it will translate to damage at the polls in November.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger,” says Richard Viguerie, the guru of conservative political direct mail. “I’m beginning, for the first time, [to hear] people talk about ‘it would not be the worst thing in the world if Howard Dean were president,’ because the size of government would stay still rather than increase 50 percent under a second Bush administration.”

Lee Newcom, president of the United Republican Fund of Illinois, says the spending issues have troubled conservatives in his state, but it’s not costing Mr. Bush votes.

“I see no erosion at all in the president’s support, and that is largely because of the president’s conduct of the war and the belief in the very strong character of President Bush,” he says.

Pat Buchanan, whose challenge of President George Bush in 1992 is credited by some conservatives as leading to the Clinton presidency, says that if it weren’t for the ongoing war the current president would be facing a primary challenge.

“President Bush is an active war leader, which gives him a measure of immunity from conservative defections,” says Mr. Buchanan. “But his spending is making his father look like Barry Goldwater, and my view is that domestic social spending is exploding. He’s not vetoed a single bill, he has gone south on affirmative action. And I think he’s gone AWOL on social and cultural issues.”

In 1992, Mr. Bush’s father angered conservatives by breaking his famous “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, by continuing to raise spending and by assuming that conservatives would vote for him rather than flee the party. Now, certain conservatives say they see a similar situation.

“It reminds me of 1991, 1992 all over again,” Mr. Viguerie says.

Public signs of discontent inside the Beltway include scathing critiques from the American Conservative Union’s new online journal and from the Cato Institute’s president, Edward H. Crane, who writes in the current institute newsletter that, Mr. Bush is responsible for the “philosophical collapse of the GOP.”

Mr. Viguerie says at meetings, lunches and dinners he has had with like-minded conservatives, “literally, I don’t find an enthusiastic Bush supporter among conservatives at the national level or the state level.”

But this is, for now, the dissenting view. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, says he has seen the opposite in his own travels.

“I’ve been traveling around the country, everywhere from Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, to Oregon and Washington state and everywhere in between, talking to Republicans,” he says. “The intensity of Bush support out there is remarkable. President Bush has united our party in a way I haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”

In fact, Gallup analyzed its polls over the years and finds that Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating among his party members is better than most other first-term incumbents a year from an election during the past 65 years. November’s survey showed 87 percent of Republicans approved, topped only by President Reagan’s 91 percent in November 1983 and President Eisenhower’s 91 percent in 1955.

By comparison, Mr. Bush’s father had a 78 percent job approval among Republicans in November 1991.

Discontent seems to be cyclical; Mr. Reagan faced similar criticism in 1983. Mr. Viguerie was widely quoted then, too, criticizing the incumbent’s “leftward drift” on spending and the growth of government.

Social conservatives are more pleased with Mr. Bush, who signed a ban on partial-birth abortion after two vetoes by President Clinton.

Presidential political adviser Karl Rove estimates that as many as 4 million evangelical voters stayed home in 2000 because they were not sure whether Mr. Bush was “strong enough” on their issues.

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, Mr. Bush said that he would fight homosexual “marriage,” through a constitutional amendment if needed. But he further said that “whatever legal arrangements people want to make, they’re allowed to make, so long as it’s embraced by the state or at the state level” — words that many conservatives interpreted as prospective acceptance of homosexual civil unions.

The bigger concern now, though, is that fiscal conservatives won’t vote next year.

“My best gauge maybe is the position of Bush the younger at this stage is better than Bush the elder, but not by much,” says John Berthoud, president of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union. “He has done the right thing on taxes, but on so much else, he has not.”

Mr. Berthoud compared the Medicare prescription-drug bill to the 1998 budget deal that congressional Republicans worked out with Mr. Clinton.

“A lot of analysts think that budget deal turned off grass-roots activists,” he says. “I know ‘98 is a long time ago, but I think it’s instructive. For grass-roots activists, tax cuts are terrific, we’re appreciative, but there’s got to be more to it than that, or you will turn people off and people will find other things to do than vote Election Day 2004.”

Don Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union and the editor of the new online journal, says for now, the discontent is mostly at the level of conservative leaders and hasn’t trickled through to grass-roots voters.

“Right now, I don’t think the disquiet — even though it’s real and substantial — I don’t think it has anything to do with the way they’ll vote,” he says.

Mr. Viguerie argues that’s just how it seemed a year before the 1992 election, but the “disconnect between what conservatives were experiencing and feeling and what was coming out of the White House” just grew.

Michael R. Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State, says he’s seeing discontent at the local level. “That’s starting to extend out, certainly, among my members. They’re very pleased with the president signing [the ban on] partial-birth abortion and my members, from what I hear and see, are clearly pleased with his steadfast fight on terrorism, and tax cuts, but they certainly do question the Medicare increase.”

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