- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Some Republican voters are beginning to ask if having a liberal Democrat in the White House with a Republican majority in Congress is the only way to restrain federal spending.

Many fiscally concerned Republicans concede they now long for a return to the days of gridlock, when one party controlled at least one house of Congress, while the other party occupied the Oval Office.

Complaints from conservatives — not just full-time activists, but ordinary voters who express their town-hall grumbles to Republican congressmen — are increasingly worrisome to many in the GOP.

“Conservatives aren’t yet ready to abandon ship,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “But a lot of them are eyeing the rail.”

Mr. Pence, one of 25 House Republicans who voted against Mr. Bush’s new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement, said his office is “getting a lot of e-mail that reflects that very attitude.”

It is, campaign professionals say, an ominous sign for a president who must rely on his voter base to turn out in record numbers in an election that many expect to be as close as the disputed result of 2000.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said he can understand why some frustrated conservatives talk about the advantages of having a Democrat in the White House. “I too see little difference between the parties on domestic spending,” said Mr. Flake.

“That strategy — a Democrat in the White House and a Republican Congress — is hard to argue against, based upon the empirical evidence,” said Donald J. Devine, a former Reagan White House official who has founded a new online conservative magazine.

“What I hear fellow conservatives say is things like, ‘If your Republican president proposes as much social spending as a Democrat would, then what’s the point of having a Republican in the White House?’” said Republican media consultant Tom Edmonds. “Now, that’s ominous.”

A spokeswoman for the president’s re-election campaign said Republican voters will still support Mr. Bush in November.

“Republicans recognize the important choice we face next November as a country,” said Nicolle Devenish, the Bush campaign communications director. “It is a choice between moving our nation forward — on a path toward greater prosperity, greater freedom and greater security and turning backward to a time of higher taxes and less security at home and abroad.”

Yet others worry that grass-roots grumbling over the president’s policies might have wide-ranging consequences.

“What we’re hearing is anger over spending,” said Kerry Houston, vice president for policy at Frontiers for Freedom, an economic- and defense-policy institute. She said that anger “is permeating the base, which may not turn out for Bush or for our House and Senate candidates in November. We could lose seats in Congress.”

Even Republican candidates are beginning to distance themselves from Mr. Bush. At a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Christian Coalition of Georgia, not one of the state’s Republican Senate or House candidates supported the president’s spending or immigration policies.

The Republican National Committee counters with a list of conservative accomplishments under Mr. Bush.

“A Democrat president is a great idea if you don’t believe in lower taxes, a strong national defense, accountability in education and banning procedures like partial-birth abortion,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson said.

“Those who think they might prefer a Democrat president should remember a few highlights from the Clinton years: the largest tax increase in American history, the vetoed ban on partial-birth abortion, massive cuts in military funding and an effort to move America to socialized medicine,” Miss Iverson said.

But one Republican consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said conservative unrest is real.

“Everywhere I go, including the South, I hear people talking about the growth in government spending and they’re disgusted. They have nowhere to turn. They sure as heck are not going to vote for a Democrat, but they’re not excited about voting to re-elect this Republican president. They say he makes the Great Society look chintzy.”

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