- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

President Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, met with a group of cranky conservative activists in the White House last week to remind them why Mr. Bush deserves their support.

Among other things, Mr. Rove and presidential counsel Harriet Miers told the conservative leaders Mr. Bush will be nominating another 20 conservative judges who will issue court rulings for decades to come.

It was a sobering reminder to these hard-core conservatives, who have become sharply critical of Mr. Bush’s presidency, of the sweeping and long-lasting ideological changes on the federal bench he has made in the last six years.

That Mr. Rove even had to make the case for what will be called the Bush court long after he leaves office spoke volumes about how much trouble the president was having with his once-faithful political base. An Associated Press poll reported last week that the president’s once sky-high approval rating among conservatives had dropped to 52 percent.

The meeting was further proof, if any was needed, the White House has neglected one of its most critical political survival tasks: constant care and feeding of its conservative base. Ignore them and no matter what you have done, you risk losing their full support when you need them.

It’s widely recognized by now that giving Mr. Rove a larger, policymaking portfolio in the second term sapped the time he could devote to his true calling: political strategizing and preparing for the 2006 midterm elections.

This is not to say the architect of Mr. Bush’s political revolution wasn’t in the battle. Many political challengers in key House and Senate races are running now because Mr. Rove helped recruit them. But this is not just a full-time job: It is the toughest election challenge of Mr. Rove’s White House career.

He knows the challenge he faces is largely due to eroding support in the party’s conservative ground forces. That’s why last week’s meeting was one of many sessions planned in the days to come: to listen to conservative complaints, mend fences, re-establish old alliances and, as Mr. Rove and Miss Miers did last week, remind them what Mr. Bush has done for the country, for his party and for conservatives.

It starts with the Bush tax cuts, ultimately $1.7 trillion in across-the-board tax reductions that has fueled one of the greatest economic recoveries in U.S. history. As this is written, Congress is extending $70 billion in tax cuts on capital gains, stock dividends and the Alternative Minimum tax until 2010 to keep the recovery going.

On social issues, there is very little on the pro-life agenda Mr. Bush has not advanced, leading to the ban on partial-birth abortions. Congress will soon vote on a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex “marriage.” His support among social conservatives seems secure.

Conservatives are very much in Mr. Bush’s corner on national security and the war on terrorism, and recent CBS News polls showed voters still trusted Mr. Bush more than the Democrats to deal with these two issues.

Perhaps the conservatives’ biggest complaint by far with Mr. Bush involves overspending. He has never vetoed a budget bill, though many he signed were stuffed with pork and needlessly wasted tens of billions of dollars. The massive entitlement expansion built into Mr. Bush’s prescription-drug benefits program, the largest spending increase in Medicare’s history, plus record appropriations for the Education Department and other federal bureaucracies, has only intensified conservative angst over the GOP’s spending binge.

The spectacle of the Republican Senate voting to preserve ridiculous boondoggles like Mississippi’s $700 million “railroad to nowhere” as part of a CSX freight line relocation plan reignited conservative anger that has worsened Mr. Bush’s grass-roots erosion.

If Mr. Rove and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten want to turn things around for Mr. Bush on this issue, they should find a spending bill he can veto, laying down the line that the day of endless pork-barrel projects must stop.

Unfortunately, it won’t be the pending $106 billion emergency defense spending bill that has been larded with pork and includes the rail funding — the largest single earmark ever. Vetoing a defense bill that will be critical to success in Iraq and the war on terrorism would be a political disaster.

But there will be other spending bills this year he can veto that will send a very welcome sign to the party’s troops that the GOP still stands for smaller, leaner government and that the president means what he says when he tells Congress to cut spending.

If Republican lawmakers were to uphold Mr. Bush’s veto, it would energize and reassure the GOP’s base that the party still stands for limited, frugal government and has heard their complaints. How about it, Mr. President?

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


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