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May 11, 2006
Have Conservatives Washed Their Hands Of Bush?

The Washington Post draws the correct conclusion of the low approval ratings for George Bush and his administration by reporting on the discontent among conservatives that have sunk his presidency to near-historic lows. Although Bush has not reached the nadir seen by two other wartime presidents (Nixon and Truman both descended to 23%), the loss of conservative support has dealt a body blow to presidential influence in this midterm election:

Disaffection over spending and immigration have caused conservatives to take flight from President Bush and the Republican Congress at a rapid pace in recent weeks, sending Bush's approval ratings to record lows and presenting a new threat to the GOP's 12-year reign on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials, lawmakers and new polling data.

Bush and Congress have suffered a decline in support from almost every part of the conservative coalition over the past year, a trend that has accelerated with alarming implications for Bush's governing strategy.

The Gallup polling organization recorded a 13-percentage-point drop in Republican support for Bush in the past couple of weeks. These usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and, more generally, an abandonment of core conservative principles.

There are also significant pockets of conservatives turning on Bush and Congress over their failure to tighten immigration laws, restrict same-sex marriage, and put an end to the Iraq war and the rash of political scandals, according to lawmakers and pollsters.

Bush won two presidential elections by pursuing a political and governing model that was predicated on winning and sustaining the loyal backing of social, economic and foreign policy conservatives. The strategy was based on the belief that conservatives, who are often more politically active than the general public, could be inspired to vote in larger numbers and would serve as a reliable foundation for his presidency. The theory, as explained by Bush strategists, is that the president would enjoy a floor below which his support would never fall.

It is now apparent that this floor has weakened dramatically -- and collapsed in places.

The Bush administration has never been particularly conservative in any sense, other than perhaps in selecting judicial appointments and pursuit of right-to-life initiatives. When he ran his first campaign, he proclaimed his adherence to "compassionate conservatism", which anyone who recalled his father's single term in office knew meant big-government centrism. He added Dick Cheney to the ticket to get traction among the conservatives, who still did not flock to the polls in the way the GOP needed, and they nearly lost the election.

After taking office, Bush reversed at least two decades of conservative thought on the role of the federal government and began a massive expansion, especially at the Department of Education. During his five-year stay in office, federal spending has expanded somewhere around four times the rate of inflation. Bush and the Republican Congress have not curtailed spending in any major category of the budget during that time.

So what gave Bush traction among conservatives? The 9/11 attack and response, judicial appointments, and taxes. Conservatives have given him leeway in part because of his approach on these issues, and the lack of attractive alternatives in either party on these and other core issues. For those three areas of success, conservatives have endured the profligate spending and federal consolidation of power.

Now, however, Bush has gone more than one step too far on several fronts, and conservatives have finally allowed themselves to dissent. On immigration, which not only has long been a particular concern for conservatives but now more than ever has national-security implications, Bush has turned his back on the base in order to embrace the Democratic approach of amnesty rather than enforcement, even as a companion to normalization. He not only has consistently refused to rein in spending, declining to veto pork-laden bills, but continues to encourage ever-higher spending.

Predictably, as the money gets bigger the corruption follows, and the revelations of malfeasance have angered conservatives in their association with the GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. The 1994 "revolution" that brought Congress under Republican control based its approach on eliminating corruption from politics by reducing the spoils that lead to corruption. Now we have pork in every bill and not surprisingly corruption probes involving both parties as a result. This is not conservative governance; it's pandering by manipulating tax receipts for political gain, and the process gets more and more blatant.

The lack of conservative values in the basic functions of this Congress and government and the association nonetheless with conservatism has the Right extremely frustrated. They see the result of this situation becoming a discreditation of true conservatism that could set the movement back thirty years, and conservatives have decided to take a stand now in the final midterm of the Bush administration. Too much hangs in the balance, with immigration and federal spending out of control. If the movement is to survive, it has to either take control or establish its own identity again outside of current Republican leadership.

Whether Bush himself has lost all of the support claimed is questionable; Rasmussen has Bush at 41%, 74% among Republicans, and their reporting has been more reliable than other pollsters over the past several years. Even those numbers do not carry much good news for Bush among his own base, though. He has lost the enthusiasm among the movement conservatives. Even worse for the GOP in the upcoming elections, their Congresional leadership has done much worse in representing core conservative values, and that's the real story for 2006. The conservatives can't do much to Bush except embarrass him with low approval ratings, but they can have a much greater impact on Republican leaders this fall. Unless the GOP wants to return to minority status, Bill Frist and Denny Hastert had better start listening to the base.

UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge reminds us that he reached the same conclusion a year ago.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 11, 2006 5:53 AM

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Ed Morrissey has come around to the view that conservatives are ciorrectly washing their hands of George W Bush. After taking office, Bush reversed at least two decades of conservative thought on the role of the federal government and began [Read More]

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