OP-EDS

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October 9, 2003

Conservatives' criticism hurting Bush

Liberals—whether vying for book sales or voters—savage President Bush at every turn, often with language far harsher than anything they reserve for, say, Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, many conservatives criticize the President for being too willing to compromise with the left. Since this disapproval is more civilized, and because it undermines the claim that Bush is a tool of the right wing, the media gives it almost no coverage. Nevertheless, it has great potential significance. Since liberals will never vote for Bush, their arguments can only change undecided or moderate voters. Conservatives can sway these same people but can also convince fellow conservatives who would instinctively vote for Bush to stay home. The 2004 election will likely be close, and the President cannot afford to lose votes from the Republican base.

Should that happen, many would observe that the President had followed in his father's footsteps. By 1992, George H. W. Bush had angered both fiscal and social conservatives with actions like breaking his "no new taxes" pledge and putting David Souter on the Supreme Court. Many conservatives today are upset by the relentless growth in discretionary domestic spending, the proposed prescription drug benefit, and the failure to confirm judicial nominees. However, for them to blame the President for these problems is unwarranted and counterproductive. While the president is hardly as reactionary as the left claims, his record is that of a conservative true believer doing the best he can.

Social conservatives have no room to complain about the President. Bush, being a man of strong religious faith, believes in the sanctity of human life and acts on that belief. One of his first acts in office was to cut off funding to a U.N. abortion program. Soon afterwards he reached a compromise on stem cell research funding that ensured the unborn would not be used for medical experimentation. He will soon sign a ban on partial birth abortion into law. As far as judicial nominees, it is not Bush's fault that liberal senators are using unprecedented tactics of questionable constitutionality to block jurists whose religious beliefs they find unacceptable.

Conservatives must note not only Bush's accomplishments, but also what his would-be replacements would do. All of them favor abortion-on-demand in every circumstance. Many criticized the president's stem cell compromise, insisting that there should be no restrictions on using human embryos for research. Howard Dean, for one, supports the legalization of euthanasia. The Democratic candidates believe that the lives of the weakest and most helpless Americans, the unborn and the deeply ill, should be subject to disposal for the sake of convenience. As for judges, what Democratic nominees would look like comes to two words: Ninth Circuit.

Conservative criticism of Bush's fiscal policies is more justified. After all, discretionary domestic spending continues to rise, and the President has voiced support for a massive new prescription drug entitlement. Conservatives ask: Is this what we get for control of Congress and the presidency? They fail to realize that the balance in the Senate is held by moderates, including many northeasterners who are nominal Republicans and who oppose politically risky spending cuts. As far as prescription drugs, the President will only sign a plan that allows private insurers to provide much of the coverage. His thinking seems to be that if this passes, it will show Americans that privatization is feasible for existing programs like Social Security and Medicare, which will otherwise go bankrupt in the next 20 years. Conservatives need to realize that a short-term setback will lead to a resounding success in the long run.

One possible explanation for the conservative discontent with Bush is, ironically, the liberal attacks on him. Columnists and talk radio hosts see Democratic contenders competing to attract the ideologues who comprise their party's base, giving them the Bush-bashing they lust after, and they get jealous. The President, having no competition in the primary, is not providing them with similar exhibitions, so they grouse about him selling out his principles.

This petty complaining can only hurt the conservative cause. Donald Rumsfeld once argued that attacks on policy at home undermine the fight overseas, emboldening the enemy. He was referring to left-wing criticism of Bush's foreign policy, but his logic applies to conservative attacks on the administration. If this criticism continues, conservatives could end up with something to really gripe about: President Howard Dean.