A working-hours conservatism

Pollsters who just a few months ago were dismissing warnings from conservative leaders about weaknesses in the Republican base are finally realizing that many voters they thought would stick with the president no matter what are no longer there for him. Indeed, the president’s precipitous fall in the polls is largely traceable not to defecting independents or increasingly hostile Democrats but to disgusted Republicans.

Pollsters who just a few months ago were dismissing warnings from conservative leaders about weaknesses in the Republican base are finally realizing that many voters they thought would stick with the president no matter what are no longer there for him. Indeed, the president’s precipitous fall in the polls is largely traceable not to defecting independents or increasingly hostile Democrats but to disgusted Republicans.

The bottom began to fall out a few months ago, with conservatives asking each other if maybe they’ve been wrong about Bush all along. Is he, they ask, really a conservative?

The fact is that, from all I know of him, George W. Bush is fairly conservative, but he has presided over a decidedly non-conservative administration. And that is far, far more important to conservatives and, indeed, to the country than his personal values or vision.

When I served in the White House during the Nixon years, the president set up something they called the “Committee of Six” to provide him a sense of what “conservatives” were thinking. We never had six members because there were never that many conservatives in the Nixon White House, but one day as we were meeting, the always-ebullient Harry Dent, Nixon’s political director, bounced into the meeting to tell us that the president was, in fact, one of us: “I was having a drink with the Old Man last night on the Sequoia and I have to tell you, he’s as conservative as any of us.”

Bill Timmons, who remains as wise today as he was then, looked at Dent and said, “Sit down, Harry. That was after working hours.”

I happen to like President Bush personally. He’s engaging and personable, and I’ll bet he’s as conservative as we’d like after working hours as well. It’s taken a while, and it’s been quite a journey for many conservatives to get to this point, but today they are judging him on what he does during working hours.

When young George W. Bush first announced for the presidency, many conservatives were skeptical. They had overcome their misgivings about his father, only to discover in time that those misgivings had been right, and they didn’t much like the idea of being taken for fools twice.

But the son seemed so different from the father. More Texan than Yankee, he ran like, talked like and seemed to be the real thing. Conservatives embraced his candidacy, cheered his victory and set to work to support him as he took the Reagan Revolution to the next level. After all, they now had both a conservative president and a conservative Congress, or at least a Republican Congress far more conservative than any Reagan confronted.

And Bush did get off to a good start. Like Reagan before him, he confounded Washington by actually fighting for and winning approval of the tax cuts he’d endorsed during his campaign. But then things started to go bad fast.

One can blame it on Osama bin Laden and the war on terrorism, but what really began to dawn on conservative observers of this president and those around him is the simple fact that, unlike the Reaganites from whom they claim to have sprung, they want to use government and actually believe they can control it for their own purposes. They see themselves as managers and problem solvers who have been as willing as the architects of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to use and grow government to achieve their social goals.

As if that hasn’t been bad enough, the president and his chief advisers dismissed the opinions and views of those with whom they disagreed as irrelevant, outdated, racist, sexist or simple-minded. When push came to shove, one was all too often either with this White House or against it and, as a consequence, when things started to go bad (as conservatives predicted they would), there were few willing to stand and fight for an administration they had come to dislike.

What conservatives and those in the administration have to realize now is that, regardless of how they feel about each other, they will all be driven from power in November and set the stage or a liberal policy nightmare unless they can get together in the face of a common foe. The question now is not whether Bush is one of us or whether we “like” him but whether we can work together to avoid political disaster.

It’s going to take some give and take on both sides, but if we can’t do it or if it’s too late, we’re liable to lose the Congress this fall and the White House in 2008.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).