Nov. 3: Fight for GOP's soul

This year’s presidential campaign promises to be the most costly ever, and that has me worried sick.

Lest anyone think I’ve joined Common Cause, let me assure you I am not talking about the spending and campaign costs that seem to concern them so much. I really don’t care how much candidates and their supporters raise and spend or the loopholes that seem to keep Sen. John McCain awake at night. The First Amendment protects this sort of spending, and I’m even willing to defend the flagrant attempt of the gazillionare Kerry supporters to buy the presidency by hiring where most campaigns recruit volunteers for the same work.
This year’s presidential campaign promises to be the most costly ever, and that has me worried sick.

Lest anyone think I’ve joined Common Cause, let me assure you I am not talking about the spending and campaign costs that seem to concern them so much. I really don’t care how much candidates and their supporters raise and spend or the loopholes that seem to keep Sen. John McCain awake at night. The First Amendment protects this sort of spending, and I’m even willing to defend the flagrant attempt of the gazillionare Kerry supporters to buy the presidency by hiring where most campaigns recruit volunteers for the same work.

I have to admit that I find it amusing that anyone can be quite as hypocritical as George Soros, who spent millions promoting campaign reforms designed to shut up people with whom he disagrees while guaranteeing him the right to spend as much of his own money as he wants to promote his pet causes and to indulge his hatred of George W. Bush. I find it amusing because money alone is not enough. It helps, but without a message that appeals, it doesn’t get one nearly as far as the reformers believe.

No, I am worried about a different kind of spending. Close elections like the one we are witnessing between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are costly in a much different and far more real way. These two characters are careening around the country promising programs and goodies that no responsible leader who is in the least concerned about runaway federal spending would even consider.

As a conservative, it bothers me that my candidate and his advisers have spent nearly four years throwing public money around on programs designed more to maximize their chances of holding on to their jobs than to solve problems they are supposed to be solving. I comfort myself in the belief that if these folks weren’t so concerned with setting the stage for this fall’s election they might have acted with greater restraint and therefore might start worrying about spending and the size of government sometime after Nov. 2.

It is small comfort, however, as bad habits are tough to break. After the blowup regarding the administration’s high-pressure effort to get conservatives to pass the Medicare prescription-drug bill, Bush promised that while it might break the bank it would help in the election; then things would be different in his second term. We’ll see.

The one thing we conservatives do know, however, is that anyone concerned about spending under a second Bush administration will still do whatever is necessary to reelect the man because his opponent would be infinitely worse. That is clear from Kerry’s Senate record and the promises he’s made as a candidate.

It was clear in their first debate, last week. Kerry is an articulate and quick-witted fellow, but to him the only indicia of concern are money. He would spend more than Bush on healthcare, job training and even on homeland security, which he sees as woefully under funded. Even if the Bush Republican Party has forgotten that it is the party of small government in anything approaching an absolute sense, it still looks pretty good when compared to the alternative.

Democrats seem more consistent in some ways than Republicans. They may vary their rhetoric, but they remain the big-government party. They embrace spending exuberantly and tell us not to worry because the money for everyone’s goodies will come from the pockets of other, wealthier Americans. Republicans, on the other hand, rarely vary their rhetoric but tamper instead with the substance of what makes them Republicans.

That cannot go on for long. A battle for the soul of the Republican Party will begin Nov. 3, regardless of the outcome of the election. I hope personally that in the second term I believe he will win, Bush will help strengthen a Reaganite party dedicated not just to vanquishing our foreign enemies but to representing the interests of free citizens rather than the desires of business interests and government agency heads.
If he decides instead to continue as he has, he will become gradually irrelevant to those seeking a revival of their party.

This battle for the soul of the GOP will take place in Congress where, two weeks ago, House conservatives selected Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, one of a couple of dozen GOP conservatives who refused to go along with the President’s Medicare expansion, to lead them in the next Congress and at the grassroots, as a half-dozen or more presidential wannabes looking to succeed Bush begin searching for a message that will resonate with the party activists whose support they will need to realize their dream.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).