Dirty Hands and A Pure Heart
George W. Bush and the Reality of Political Compromise
by Michael Spencer
Were it not for the war on terrorism, conservatives would be boiling mad at President Bush. As it is, the President’s popularity among conservatives is suffering through a period of disenchantment. As was predicted in this space more than a year ago, it is conservatives who will eventually give the president the most trouble. I’ll have to admit, he is earning it.
What are the main issues? First, the president took a moderate line on stem cell research. Next, the president angered his free trade supporters by placing a tariff on imported steel. Then the President angered the Israeli lobby by sponsoring a U.N. resolution on a Palestinian state and openly criticizing Israel’s military moves into refugee camps. The President seemed to do very little to come to the aid of Judicial nominee Charles Pickering, who was borked by Democrats with no good reason other than political meanness. Finally, the president will sign the dreaded campaign finance bill, and has annoyed me and a lot of other core conservatives in the process.
These are not minor matters, though none of them rises to the level of the war on terrorism. They are the sorts of things that the President knows are irritating his base. I am quite sure that the President’s response in all of these matters is purposeful. Conservatives need not fool themselves into thinking the President is so distracted by the war on terrorism that he simply doesn’t have the time or attention to care about these issues. GWB is a politician, and his staff is politically savvy in whatever advice they are giving him. One can easily see that Bush has differing points of view surrounding him, and it would be possible to say a certain mindset is prevailing. And you might be right, but what is that mindset?
First, I think Bush wants to be re-elected. Many conservatives are acting ridiculous about the political realities afoot in America right now. Bush won without a popular majority and by the most controversial recount in election history. He knows that the Democrats are investing in silence and moderate criticism now, with plans to run a no-holds-barred nasty campaign in 2002 and 2004. While I am doubtful that any Democrat can challenge Bush in the current environment, or that many viable candidates will even want to try, I do not think the Bushees are taking anything for granted. Some of these decisions are aimed at shoring up the Presidents support among McCain Republicans and conservative Democrats. He is hoping to reclaim the senate, widen the GOP’s lead in the house and demolish his opposition in 2004. Right or wrong, he doesn’t believe he can do this things running a blood red conservative agenda. Hence the compromises.
Second, I think the President is positioning himself strategically for future battles. Letting Pickering go down was a way to let the Democrats have their sacrificial lamb. He shouldn’t approach future borkings so passively, and the Democrats know they cannot send back every nominee so cavalierly without losing credibility. Criticizing the regime in Israel is leverage with the Palestinians, and conservatives need to understand that making Israel’s policies a criticism free zone is foolish. Israel and the Palestinians have been left alone by the world to shoot it out or work it out. The President’s support for Israel, recognition of the legitimacy of a Palestinian claim to a homeland and criticism of both sides is staying in a game that is increasingly spinning out of control. (Conservatives who say that Israel must deal with the Palestinian situation like we are dealing with terrorism are bizarrely simplistic. Imagine if Mexico were Iraq.)
Third, I think the President is more of a compromiser by nature than conservatives are comfortable with, and if they intend to support him, they need to understand what it means when a man running for President says “I will work with Democrats and Republicans.” It means getting your pure conservative ideals dirty with the art of political compromise. Bush wanted an education bill, a tax bill and a stimulus bill. He has them all, though none match the conservative dream of what such programs should be. He wants a trade bill, a patient’s bill of rights, a social security solution and conservatives on the Supreme court. In case you haven’t noticed, Republicans do not control congress and the votes to sustain vetoes are not there. That spells either gridlock, blame game or compromise. GWB is a compromiser to get some version of what he wants. Like it or not, that is the reality. If you don’t like it, send him a conservative congress.
Finally, I think the President knows that the support of the Democrats for the war on terrorism will not come free. The types of expenditures that he is asking for are usually enormously controversial, and there isn’t enough 9/11 good will in America to get through massive expenditures for homeland security and military expansion, without Democratic support. Again, conservatives need to do the numbers. Accomplishment will mean compromise, intransigence will mean nothing to present to the voters this year or in 2004. Our president is a better man than that. There are unusual political times and Bush cannot act as if the opposition is not viable and powerful. The nation needs him to hold the political base for the war together. Remember what some other Presidents have been through with congressional supervision of a war effort. Thankfully, Bush has managed to avoid that sort of politically inspired micr-management by congress.
Perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow is the campaign finance reform bill. I loathe this nasty piece of constitutional surgery, and pray that Senator McConnell is successful in killing it in the courts. But there are reasons for the President’s reluctant support of this bill, even though he probably knows the American people are not hot for such legislation. (Though I have to say we conservatives have done a terrible job of explaining to the public what is the problem with limiting political speech. Again, Rush has been a voice in the wilderness.)
Here’s the deal. First, no one wants to go back to an election and have the Democrats paste them with accusations of being against campaign finance reform. Like it or not, it sounds like you are for corruption. This bill passed because congresspersons are scared of it. The liberal media, particularly the newspapers who are the big winners in this bill, have intimidated the GOP. Second, it’s spelled ENRON. The President and every other politician in Washington and half the country is hip deep in this mess and there will be more ENRONs in the future. Signing this bill is perceived as insurance from the accusations that will be flying now and in the future. Third, this puts McCain on the team for the President, and I can only hope he delivers, because if he stabs the President in the back on this one, it will be a Judas Iscariot level performance, and whatever patriotic good will we have for McCain needs to be flushed if he proves to be Brutus.
Now believe what you want, this is what is going on. One final thought: politics isn’t pretty, and only fools and children think it so. Conservatives engage in fantasies that once their man is in he can do whatever he wants by executive order or a phone call to the Rush Limbaugh show. Maybe we have just quit teaching Civics and people don’t understand that the Presidency of George W. Bush isn’t the Presidency of FDR’s third term. Your man is going to have to fellowship with publicans and sinners, and buy a few drinks that he doesn’t indulge in himself. He is going be in the mud with the pigs and come home to a hot shower. I want to know if we are going to be there for him in this first term, or are we going to become a bunch of griping dead wood? Send the man your suggestions, write your angry columns, weep in your beer, but stick with him please.
He may have dirty hands, but he has a pure heart.