Jewish World Review July 8, 2003 / 8 Tamuz, 5763
He's not invincible
Perhaps this presidential election will be a snoozer. Perhaps the President will run away with the thing--taking even the electoral prizes of California and New York. But right now that prospect seems far from certain. And there is a chance that President Bush will find himself with a base that is unmotivated, which spells catastrophe for any candidate.
Let's look at where we are. Yes, the country trusts this president with our military. Yes, it appreciates his aggressive stance in the war on terror. Yes, it thinks he's doing the right thing on taxes. But along with all those positives, there are undeniable negatives:
1. Unemployment is disturbingly high. (It may be a "lagging indicator" but tell that to the millions of people coast-to-coast who are out of work)
2. The war in Iraq is "over" except that we have a soldier a day getting killed over there.
3. Democrats, as we see with the Howard Dean boomlet, are energized, infuriated, and have the media on their side.
Even considering these storm clouds, the President still has a lot going for him--including a lackluster Democrat field. But this only means that it is critical for him to make absolutely certain that his base--the conservatives--are really, really happy. I am here to report to you that there is trouble in River City.
Why? Consider the response President--no, candidate--George Bush gave recently when a reporter pressed him on whether he supported amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage: "I don't know if it's necessary yet. Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."
On the heels on one of the most outrageous Supreme Court decision in decades, which established a Constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, the President fumbled. He punted. He referenced his lawyers. Not good.
The salient point here is not about gay rights per se, it is that President Bush's comments indicated that the Administration increasingly views its conservative supporters as a political embarrassment, a group whose expectations need to be managed. This is a colossal mistake. Without the support of millions of conservatives who showed up to vote for him in 2000, George Bush would be spending a lot more time clearing brush in Crawford. We all know how his father's political calculation to raise taxes sat with conservatives--we never forgave him. (One could almost hear the conversation Bush the elder had with himself at the time--"Gee, I hate to break my 'no new taxes pledge,' but even if I bail on that, where are conservative going to go? Vote for that Clinton fellow?! Nah.")
After eight years of the Clinton follies, conservatives were convinced that George W. Bush was not his father's son--the ghost of '92 had scared sense into him about offending "the base." On the issue of tax cuts, President Bush certainly learned. He has brilliantly backed the Democrats into a corner, enacting a tax cut that no one, even a year ago, thought had a chance. But conservatism cannot survive on tax cuts alone.
For weeks, conservatives from across the country have been filling the email box of my radio show with doubts about where this Administration is taking us. On the size of the government, one listener from Seattle asked, "How is it that the number of employees at the Homeland Security Department is greater than the aggregate of all the agencies that were folded into it?" A law student in Boston wrote: "Our troops are still getting shot at by thugs and Saddam loyalists in Iraq, and now we're about to nation-build in Liberia?!!" Scores of others wrote to complain about the Administration's $400 billion "triangulation" strategy on prescription drug coverage for seniors--a move that Dick Morris described as "brilliantly Clintonian." There is also a constant cry about the President's anemic efforts to curb illegal immigration. Last month, the Bush Treasury Department rammed through regulations that permit banks to accept "Mexican consular ID cards" as legal identification. (Mexican officials issue these cards by the thousands every week to illegals living here.)
But it was the President's dodge on the marriage amendment that seemed to touch off a mini-revolt in the heartland. Even people (like me) who think state laws against sodomy are idiotic were upset. In the words of one fed-up stay-at-home mom in Kansas: "What's the point of doing the grassroots work for conservative candidates if this is what we're getting?"
Some of this frustration is no doubt overblown. And there is some truth to the statement that no politician will ever be conservative enough for the hardcore types. Nevertheless, as smart and politically savvy as Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and other top Bush strategists are, they need to remember that conservatives need more than lip service to volunteer to do the nitty-gritty work that wins elections. Knocking on doors, passing our pamphlets, answering phones, and manning voter registration desks for Republican candidates is the sort of work done by people who believe that America is about more than tax cuts and the war on terror.
They believe that the Supreme Court's decision upholding the use of race to promote diversity in universities is an insult to the Constitution and our goal of a color-blind society. (The Administration quietly praised the Court's holding.) They believe that while all Americans should be treated with dignity and decency, marriage is a sacred institution in the eyes of God. They believe that we should use our superior technology and appropriate manpower to keep our borders secure.
The President won the support of many across the country precisely because he defied his elite roots in his style and substance. Unlike Al Gore, he was a regular guy who just happened to go to Yale, Harvard and be raised in prominent, wealthy political family.
Now, more than ever, conservatives need to hear from that regular guy--strong, sensible, and unafraid of the scorn of the elites. The big tent philosophy is a smart one--but the tent cannot stay up for long without the proper grounding stakes.
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07/01/03: It's time to take back the Constitution