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Is Bush vulnerable on the right?

By W. James Antle III
web posted April 22, 2002

Conservatives have begun to feel new freedom to criticize President Bush, or at least his advisors. Even before the war on terrorism, or for that matter the Florida recount debacle, conservatives reacted angrily to criticism of Bush, especially from fellow conservatives.

George W. BushNow Bush has come under attack for, among other offenses: a continued insistence upon amnesty for Mexican illegal immigrants, insisting upon an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, supposedly coddling Yasser Arafat, deviations from free trade, a ridiculous education bill and signing a campaign finance reform bill widely perceived by grassroots conservatives as gutting the First Amendment.

Certainly, Bush has never been popular among paleoconsevatives, a group that has given up on nationally known Republicans at least since the 1980s. But electorally, this translated into little more than the 0.4 percent of the vote Pat Buchanan received in 2000, give or take some percentage of Harry Browne's vote and most of Howard Phillips'. The above grievances might give potential challengers more political traction as they appeal to a wider audience on the right.

Is there room on Bush's right? Conventional wisdom, which in this rare instance I am inclined to agree with, would say no. His father committed far greater offenses against conservatism during his term and was unable to provoke a conservative challenger stronger than Buchanan - who, despite impressive showings in a handful of primaries, notably New Hampshire and Georgia, and 2.9 million votes still lost every single primary.

Richard Nixon presided over wage and price controls, the EPA, SALT, the conversion of affirmative action from outreach to preferences, the Legal Services Corporation and a whole host of abominations worse than anything we have seen from either Bush. Nixon nevertheless made short work of John Ashbrook in the Republican primaries in 1972 and held John Schmitz to 1.4 percent of the vote in the general election.

Granted, none of these men faced conservative challengers who approximated their stature. When Gerald Ford did in 1976, he was nearly toppled by Ronald Reagan (though it should be remembered that Ford was an unelected president tied to an unpopular and scandal-tainted predecessor - and also that he still won). Imagine what might have happened if Reagan had opposed Nixon, or if the first George Bush faced a renomination fight from Jack Kemp.

No Reagan or Kemp looms on the horizon ready to challenge Dubya. Instead, the president is more popular among conservatives than Kemp ever was (outside the $100-a-plate circuit) and than anybody has been since Reagan himself. Instead, we have the two conservatives who have best positioned themselves to run insurgent campaigns against Bush in 2004: Alan Keyes and Ron Paul.

Both are great conservatives - I voted for Keyes for president twice and have long admired Paul as one of the few principled constitutionalists in Congress. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to imagine either of them defeating Bush for the Republican nomination or being anything more than a minor nuisance in November if they were to run as third-party candidates. Keyes has increasingly editorialized against the Bush administration and he was among the pro-lifers to denounce the president's decision to permit limited funding for embryonic stem-cell research, capitalizing on the muted but growing discontent felt by many social and religious conservatives. Paul for his part has been as eloquent in defending the Constitution and small government as Bush has been absent from promoting either objective. The Texas Republican has a following among the Libertarian, Reform and Constitution parties, thus offering him the option of running as a third-party coalition candidate.

Yet for all Keyes' passion on the issues, he has run ramshackle campaigns that have failed to net him a sufficient amount of votes in the Republican primaries. If the Buchanan precedent is any indication, it is conceivable that as a third-party candidate he would do even worse. As the Libertarian presidential nominee in 1988, Paul for his part failed to break 500,000 votes.

If conservative Bush critics lack an electoral alternative, it may also be argued that they lack perspective. Even Reagan frequently disappointed conservatives while he was in office. Like in Bush's case now, moderate advisors often got the blame, with George Schulz playing the role of Colin Powell. The phrase "let Reagan be Reagan" assumed that moderate advisors were suppressing Reagan's natural conservative instincts on various issues.

ESR senior writer Lawrence Henry recently argued in The American Prowler that Bush, also like Reagan, is fighting for two specific goals rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of every conservative issue. One, winning the war on terrorism, is self-evidently important, while the second, winning a Republican Senate, would make other conservative objectives now being sidestepped more achievable in the future. And of course, the president is more reliably conservative than any postwar president except the Gipper.

Yet none of this means Bush can continually defy his conservative base with impunity. We are already witnessing an apparent decline in political participation by religious conservatives. Karl Rove is said to believe this contributed heavily to the closeness of the 2000 election. Conservative apathy and anger can hurt Bush without manifesting itself with insurgent right-wing candidacies. Conservatives unhappy with Bush may "have nowhere else to go," but in most other contexts people with nowhere to go usually stay home.

Second, Bush's problems with conservatives could percolate at the same time other criticisms are leveled that have more traction with moderate swing voters. Despite his substantial popularity, there is at least some evidence that charges of favoritism toward the rich have stuck. The administration's reputed penchant for secrecy could also come under fire, as well as its closeness with elements in corporate America. If swing voters buy it, Bush will need to hug his base all the tighter.

It is also of course the case that there is much valid conservative criticism of Bush. He has signed some unspeakably bad legislation, ranging from the understandable (if ill-conceived and unconstitutional) PATRIOT Act to the inexplicable McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan bill.

Obviously, a president with Bush's poll numbers is far from in trouble. But we are also far from 2004. Perhaps the White House should recognize the potential problems and not let them fester.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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