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October 18, 2005
Has The Conservative Movement Started To Crack?

One reads about the coming civil war among conservatives everywhere in the media these days -- how the Miers nomination has started an internecine squabble on the right that threatens to split the GOP, usually along secular/evangelical lines. Both the New York Times and Washington Post run feature articles on this topic today -- and both get the story essentially incorrect.

The Times reports on the dismissal of an important conservative voice from a think-tank position in Dallas as a harbinger of civil war:

In the latest sign of the deepening split among conservatives over how far to go in challenging President Bush, Bruce Bartlett, a Republican commentator who has been increasingly critical of the White House, was dismissed on Monday as a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative research group based in Dallas.

In a statement, the organization said the decision was made after Mr. Bartlett supplied its president, John C. Goodman, with the manuscript of his forthcoming book, "The Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

Mr. Bartlett, who was a domestic policy aide at the White House in the Reagan administration and a deputy assistant Treasury secretary under the first President Bush, confirmed that he had been dismissed after 10 years with the center but declined to make any further comment.

Bartlett has his followers, and his book will get deserved attention; his is an important voice from the Reagan era especially. However, it hardly qualifies as news that Bush 43 differs significantly from both Reagan and his own father in economic approaches. Bush 41 spent and taxed; Reagan cut taxes and watched as a Democratic Congress spent money anyway. Bush 43 cut taxes and allows a Republican Congress to spend without once pulling out the veto pen. Despite the Gray Lady's apparent surprise at Bartlett's criticisms, this approach has not gone unnoticed during Bush's term of office, nor have conservatives failed to remark about it. Until a series of missteps by Bush and Tom DeLay after Hurricane Katrina pushed budgetary issues to the fore, the conservative criticisms didn't get much play.

No one has ever thought that Bush represented the conservative wing of the GOP. He didn't even run for election as a conservative in 2000; that was McCain's role. Bush selected Dick Cheney in main part to get conservative backing for his candidacy. The fiscal conservatives especially mistrusted Bush because of his father's weak performance, and apart from the tax cuts, have found little to cheer in this presidency.

The Washington Post gets even more vague, but comes a bit closer to why the issue seems so extant now:

The apparatus constructed largely by Bush strategist Karl Rove and deployed effectively on behalf of recently confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has splintered over Miers and broken free from its commander. Conservative organizations that generated millions of e-mail messages on behalf of Roberts have silenced their servers. Airwaves that sizzled with commercials demanding a Senate vote just weeks ago carry no such ads into living rooms now. The followers of these groups are not flooding their senators with supportive telephone calls and letters.

The split seems to be evolving into one of the most profound schisms in years within a conservative movement whose unity has buoyed Bush through his most difficult moments and earned the envy of the political left. While conservative groups have disagreed over policies in the past, rarely have they turned against a president so normally aligned with them on such a central, legacy-building priority.

"I don't know of anybody that is right now planning to go all out, whereas I know that had a different kind of nominee been selected, that people were prepared to go full tilt," said Paul M. Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation, who so far has declined to support Miers.

The conservative movement has many different constituencies -- fiscal and deficit, foreign-policy, faith-based, and libertarian. Two issues largely unite all of these major groups: the war on terror and the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. Bush has performed well on the first issue and will likely retain support of conservatives simply on that basis. He has even built a good record on the second, until he nominated the increasingly hapless Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. That and the announcement of a $200 billion rebuilding effort for New Orleans has conservatives unhappy about the direction of federal efforts and wanting to ensure that their voices get heard in policymaking as well as the President's natural inclination towards the moderates.

The so-called "civil war", then, amounts to nothing more substantial than a constituency simply flexing its muscle and making its displeasure known. Most politicians understand that, and work to keep friends close. The Bush administration has always had a thin skin and usually reacts poorly to criticism, and that worsens in direct proportion to the closeness of the critique. But conservatives also know that the Bush administration will have little pull in the coming years -- no one significant from the administration appears ready to lead the party after 2008, and that will eventually reduce Bush's influence over party politics to a large degree.

This jostling for position will only increase through the next presidential election, and will start becoming acute next year for the mid-terms. It won't be a civil war, no more than the Deaniacs marched away from the Democrats last year. The Right understands two-party politics and zero-sum electoral challenges perfectly well. If the hysterics in the media see that as a civil war, then they only reveal their own inexperience with conservatives.

UPDATE: Corrected '41' to '43' (thanks to CQ reader Liberal Avenger , in comments).

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 18, 2005 6:46 AM

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» Miers Is Done from Secure Liberty
Conservatives simply won't fight for Harriett Miers, and they may fight against her. The apparatus constructed largely by Bush strategist Karl Rove and deployed effectively on behalf of recently confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has splinter... [Read More]

Tracked on October 18, 2005 2:31 PM

» A Coming Energy Crisis? from Conservative Musings
I agree that there is not going to be an outright civil war. What I think more likely is that those disillusioned with the people they put in office will question whether it is worth it to participate in the process again. [Read More]

Tracked on October 18, 2005 7:14 PM

» Bruce Bartlett on George Bush from Reasoned Audacity: Politics in Real Life
Bruce Bartlett Bruce Bartlett says George Bush has never been a conservative. At best, conservatives were naive about Bush. At worst, they sold out much of what they claim to believe in. Tell us what you really think Bruce.... [Read More]

Tracked on October 18, 2005 8:49 PM

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