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Thursday, October 20, 2005
REPUBLICANS PREPARE FOR LIFE AFTER BUSH.Beached Partyby Ryan Lizza date 10.20.05 Issue date 10.31.05 That was fast. Last month, George W. Bush was the leader of the conservative movement. This month, he's a traitor. "I don't think that Bush was ever one of us," says Bruce Bartlett, the conservative columnist and former Reagan and Bush 41 official. "And conservatives knew that. He was the anointed one. You can tell if someone is really part of your movement or not or whether he's someone from the outside. He's never said or written anything that would lead one to believe he has any clue what movement conservatism is all about. You were stuck with what you had, and I think conservatives made the best of it." Bartlett, who is writing a book about Bush's betrayal of conservatives, was a critic before it became cool. Now, of course, his bandwagon is getting very crowded. "Bush was not the second coming of Ronald Reagan," says former Bush speechwriter David Frum, whose memoir about serving the president is called The Right Man but who is now one of the rebel leaders of the anti-Harriet Miers campaign. "He was a new thing. Every conservative knew he was a blend and was going to reach out to new constituencies. What the old coalition was going to get was a tax cut and judges. ... But the tax cut has turned out not to be a very valuable thing. Because of the deficits, this tax cut is not going to be permanent. Now here [with Miers] is the other most important thing he was going to do for conservatives, and he didn't do it." To be sure, the conservative abandonment of Bush isn't total. The right is divided. Some see the split as one of Washington eggheads versus the red-state masses. Others, noting that the debate over Miers is, at its core, about abortion, interpret the current anger as a revolt by social conservatives. But neither of these explanations quite captures what is going on. The conservative war over Miers is being fought by elites on both sides. The pro-Miers elites are just doing a better job of wrapping their cause in populism. Meanwhile, members of the Republican clerical establishment can be found both criticizing the Miers pick (Gary Bauer) and defending it (Pat Robertson). The best explanation of the two warring tribes comes from Marshall Wittmann. Having bounced from the Christian Coalition to John McCain's staff to the Democratic Leadership Council in the last decade, he has earned a reputation as Washington's shrewdest conservatologist. The Moose, as he likes to be called, is giddy about the conservative crack-up, and he thinks he has identified the fault line: "This is intra-conservative warfare between the faith-based conservatives and the reality-based conservatives." And, by "faith," he means not faith in God, but faith in Bush. In other words, the real split over Miers is between conservatives who worship Bush and those who worship conservatism. One camp believes in the infallibility of the president. The other camp believes the evidence before them. Fred Barnes and James Dobson are faith-based conservatives. Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer are reality-based conservatives. Hugh Hewitt is faith-based. Ramesh Ponnuru is reality-based. Bush has more than three years left in office, and he will certainly make decisions that the right will cheer. But the scars from the Miers pick are unlikely to heal fully. A bond has been broken. Psychologically, conservatives are now looking beyond this president. Writing Monday in The New York Times, the National Review's Ponnuru all but declared the Bush era over: Conservatives are "thinking more and more about life after President Bush." And, as The New Republic goes to press, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Valerie Plame leak scandal is about to engulf the White House. "If there are indictments," says a GOP lobbyist, "and the basis of those indictments is that they didn't tell the truth about the war, people will want to change the channel, and they will be looking for new leadership. The next three years will be dismissed." Adds Wittmann, "If [U.S. Attorney Patrick] Fitzgerald comes down with something that strikes the White House, all bets are off with conservatism. It's the post-Bush era." The question for conservatives is what comes next. As conservatives tell it, the current insurrection has been building for some time. Bartlett, the mainstream conservative who has written and thought the most about Bush's disloyalty, tells the tale this way. In 2001, conservatives were deeply frustrated by low-level Bush heresies like the education bill. Then, September 11 silenced all dissent. In 2002, things got worse: An enormous agriculture bill, steel tariffs, a bloated budget, and a campaign finance bill that Bush once argued was unconstitutional. (Bartlett goes so far as to say Bush "violated his oath of office" by signing it.) Then, the Iraq war silenced all dissent. Next came the Medicare prescription-drug bill, which simultaneously funneled money to the pharmaceutical industry, expanded government more than any entitlement since LBJ, and violated the traditions, if not rules, of the House when the vote on the bill was held open for nearly three hours while conservative Republicans were bullied into reversing their no votes. "From my own point of view, the drug bill was the line in the sand," says Bartlett. "That's the point I decided to write a book and say this guy isn't one of us." Other conservatives were also very angry. Then, the presidential campaign against John Kerry silenced all dissent. We know the rest of the story: Absent a new war or domestic enemy like Kerry, Bush was suddenly exposed to the whole world, including the conservative movement, as a less-than-great president. Social Security reform fizzled. Bush signed an outrageously pork-laden transportation bill. He vacationed while New Orleans drowned. "What a lot of conservatives have always believed is that at least we know how to make the trains run," says a chastened Bartlett. "It was jarring that the MBA president wasn't a good manager." And then it was even more jarring that he wasn't such a good picker of Supreme Court justices, either. "Judges in the mold of Scalia and Thomas were the 'no new taxes' pledge of this presidency," says Frum. Scales fell from eyes, and the rebellion began. Conservatives are now looking ahead. Frum is writing a book about the future of the movement. Republicans are jittery that Bush will be a liability for them in 2006. And the 2008 presidential candidates are suddenly beginning to carve out identities that distinguish them from Bush. Since the president has no clear successor, the Republican primaries will be more open and dynamic than they have been in decades. "Eight or ten months ago, it looked like the 2008 nominee would be the person who could convince primary voters he was most like George W. Bush," says California Republican strategist Dan Schnur. "That's not the case anymore." Numerous interviews with Republicans across the ideological spectrum reveal three camps jockeying to define the post-Bush era. Reformers There are two strains of reform conservatism bubbling in GOP circles. They look nothing like each other, but either one might find fertile ground if the Republican status quo is truly upended. The brand of reform that is most clearly ascendant is John McCain's. "Chaos is our friend" is a saying often used by McCain advisers, and they are right. Although the Arizona senator can't explicitly take advantage of the unrest over Miers, given that he supports her nomination, he benefits from GOP anger at the president. Conservative disillusionment with Bush is giving McCain a second chance with parts of the base that previously shunned him--a chance he's well-positioned to exploit. Even before the Miers split, he alone in the GOP carried the mantle of fiscal restraint. He voted against Bush's Medicare and highway bills and has now joined hands with conservatives in the House to try to cut spending. Meanwhile, McCain's allies have been quietly reaching out to social conservatives. They hold regular conference calls with Republican leaders in South Carolina, the senator's Waterloo in 2000. McCain (shamefully) has even endorsed the teaching of "intelligent design" in schools. Not only is McCain taking advantage of the ideological fissures on the right, but he is one of the few Republicans who could actually benefit from the scandals threatening to bring down his party. The McCainiacs have been the loudest voices in GOP politics decrying the Jack Abramoff-style corruption that has infested Washington. (McCain himself, to the chagrin of many conservatives, is leading the Senate investigation of Abramoff.) If the Bush collapse is accompanied by major Republican defeats in 2006 ("How sobering will that be to the party?" says a McCain adviser), McCain is poised to be the chief beneficiary on the right. The other interesting reform advice Republicans are getting these days comes from, of all people, Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker has spent his years in exile thinking deeply about the future of conservatism. He has a website, He lectures widely. He sends Republicans long white papers about how to repair the party. In the middle of the White House meltdown, he popped up on television to offer his views. And, yes, he's thinking about running for president. Gingrich has been puzzling over conservatism's central dilemma: How does it transform its guiding ethos from that of an opposition movement, which it once was, to that of a governing majority, which it now is? "We are confronting a decision," he wrote recently, "which will largely decide whether conservatism is a temporarily successful movement doomed to retreat into minority status again or is a governing movement that is capable of solving problems and governing on behalf of the American people for a generation or more." Gingrich happens to be pro-Miers, but the party's recent misfortunes have many conservatives listening to his advice, which, read closely, is actually a searing critique of Bush's leadership. His main idea is that conservatives need to figure out the proper "governing style and governing tone." The most successful leaders, he argues, "have always emphasized the nation and sought to include their opponents." He believes the country wants the GOP to "campaign less and govern more." Gingrich has become, in effect, a champion of the goo-goo idea that politics has become too polarized and too partisan. (Yes, this is the same Newt Gingrich.) "While [long-term governing majorities] always stay close to their base," he wrote, "they do not allow their base to limit either their appeal or their reach. While they are always solid partisans, they offer visions and principles that reach far beyond their partisan supporters." Successful leaders also have an "inclusive approach and a problem solving tone" and will not "divide the country unnecessarily." They also "evolve and change" when circumstances do; "rethink and change ... policies" and "personnel"; eschew appeals for support based strictly on "loyalty"; and are "determined but not stubborn." In other words, to be successful, the next Republican leader must govern in a manner exactly the opposite from Bush. But, while some Republicans may like the critique of Bush's style, the policy implications of Gingrich's advice would seem to be the reverse of what the right wants. Gingrich calls for leadership that is depolarizing and apolitical. Like McCain, he's calling for the party to emphasize the national interest over the narrow interests of its most ardent supporters. The problem is that many conservatives are now hungry for purity. Bush has ironically pushed away both sides in this debate: He has governed as a partisan, alienating more than half the electorate; yet, in the end, he failed to satisfy his own base.
posted by Jack Mercer @ 10/20/2005 09:02:00 PM  
  • At 10/24/2005 12:39:00 AM, Blogger SheaNC said…

    Well, Jack, as you said, this is an interesting article. What is really sad, to me, is that people of both parties are willing to support and promote candidates like Bush or Kerry even when they know they are wrong. Even though I have my obvious preference, the two dominant political parties in America are one of the biggest obstacles to good government.

  • At 10/29/2005 08:28:00 PM, Blogger Jack Mercer said…

    Agreed 100% Shea!


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