Conservatives get taken for a ride.


There are two basic ways to think about President Bush's
relationship with the religious right. The first is that Bush is a
genuine ally of social conservatives who, while often cagey in
public, takes every opportunity to advance their agenda. As
liberals would phrase this interpretation, Bush is a tool of the
religious right. The second--utterly diametrical--theory is that
Bush is mainly interested in harvesting votes from religious
conservatives in order to implement an agenda dominated by his
economic backers. In liberal-ese: Social conservatives are hapless
GOP dupes. At this point, five years and two Supreme Court
nominations into the Bush presidency, we can arrive at a definitive
answer. And the verdict is: hapless dupes.The nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court is, of course,
the catalyzing event. Pat Buchanan, typifying the conservative
response, wrote, "Bush may have tossed away his and our last chance
to roll back the social revolution imposed upon us by our judicial
dictatorship since the days of Earl Warren." And conservatives are
certainly right to be upset. Miers may be personally conservative,
but there is a long history of "stealth" nominees whom Republican
presidents have passed off as true believers: John Paul Stevens,
Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter. Some of those
assurances centered around the nominees' personal religiosity.
(Conservative activist Paul Weyrich bitterly recalled "the White
House conference call with Anthony M. Kennedy's priest, who assured
the Reagan White House that Kennedy's strong Catholic upbringing
would cause him to vote right on social issues.")

Bush's betrayal of the social conservative cause did not begin with
Miers. His previous high court appointment, John Roberts, ought to
have been taken as such. Bush all but explicitly promised to
nominate justices like Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia, but
Roberts is not in that mold. He has not displayed a passion for
overturning precedents that enrage the right, and he has disavowed
the tendency, favored by conservatives like Thomas, to use the
Court to smother liberal legislation. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in
these pages last month, "Roberts's nomination as chief justice was
a peace offering from Bush to Democrats." And, indeed, Roberts
sailed through the Senate with 78 votes precisely because many
liberals and moderates believe he will not be a Scalia.

Conservatives, of course, didn't want a justice who would get 78
votes. They wanted a maximally conservative justice. The point of
the "nuclear option" showdown was to lay the groundwork for the
Senate to confirm a Supreme Court justice with just 51 votes.
Conservatives anticipated that Bush might nominate a justice so
conservative that the entire Democratic Party--and even three or
four moderate Republicans--would reject him. And they succeeded,
using the threat of annulling the judicial filibuster to force
Democrats to accept a compromise in which they could filibuster
only in "extraordinary circumstances. " Republican senators who
signed on to that agreement said that it essentially banned
Democrats from filibustering judges they had previously allowed to
be appointed to the appellate courts, including radicals like Edith
Clement and Janice Rogers Brown. If Bush so desired, he could have
easily secured a seat for a militant conservative. He made no
attempt to do so.

Miers, obviously, is even worse than Roberts from a conservative
standpoint. Her most unwavering opponents come from the right. To
the extent that Democrats oppose her, they cite her qualifications
rather than her ideology. She may well be confirmed only because of
Democratic votes, a spectacle nobody has contemplated.

This is in striking contrast to how Bush conducts his economic
agenda. There, 78-vote coronations are rare. When it comes to tax
cuts, regulation, or other controversial budget changes, Bush's
Republicans usually muscle their legislation through both houses of
Congress without any votes to spare. (Last week's House vote to
ease oil refinement restrictions--during which the GOP leadership
extended a five-minute vote to 45 minutes while they twisted enough
arms to prevail 212 to 210--is a typical display.) The goal is
always to win as many benefits as possible for the party's business
and donor base. If it's a tax cut, to take a common example, Bush
will hold out for the biggest, most regressive one he can get.
(It's true that twelve Senate Democrats ultimately voted for Bush's
2001 tax cut, but only because they wanted to take credit for the
goodies after passage was inevitable. The truly decisive vote--the
one making room in the budget for the tax cut--happened earlier,
and it passed with only two votes to spare.)

Maybe the most telling contrast is between the way Bush handled
Social Security privatization and gay marriage. Polls this year and
last showed that voters were roughly split on a constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage. But those polls also showed that
voters roundly rejected gay marriage--all eleven state anti-gay
marriage ballot measures passed easily last November-- which
suggests that, if they could be persuaded that changing the
Constitution was necessary to prevent gay marriage, they might
support an amendment. Meanwhile, the public wildly approves of
Social Security, and it has long opposed any change that would
reduce guaranteed benefits.

At the beginning of the year, neither a gay marriage amendment nor
Social Security privatization had anywhere close to enough support
to pass. When The Washington Post asked Bush earlier this year
about the marriage amendment, he shrugged, "Senators have made it
clear that, so long as [the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed
constitutional, nothing will happen. I'd take their admonition
seriously." He has done nothing to move public opinion since. In
the face of opposition to Social Security privatization, on the
other hand, Bush launched a campaign of unprecedented scale to win
over the public and Congress. When his media blitz caused support
for privatization to drop, he simply continued, persevering until
long after even his staunchest allies had given up the ghost.

When Bush does advance the conservative social agenda, he almost
always does so in ways that do not deplete his store of political
capital. On stem cells, Bush tried to forge a compromise rather
than battle for undiluted conservative principle. When polls showed
his intervention for Terri Schiavo was unpopular, he dropped the
issue like a stone.

Bush is far from the first Republican president to enjoy unrequited
support from the Christian right. Presidents Reagan and George H.W.
Bush appointed moderate Supreme Court justices and declined to
press hard for constitutional amendments on issues like abortion
and school prayer. Instead, those presidents, like the current one,
give social conservatives symbolism and imagery but little in the
way of actual policy change. Affluent conservative investors, on
the other hand, get massive policy changes that they like.

Why do social conservatives keep accepting this rotten deal? It's
not because there are fewer of them than there are economic
conservatives. A detailed Pew survey last spring found that
"enterprisers," who favor smaller government, comprise slightly
less than a third of the GOP voting base. The other two groups,
"pro-government conservatives" and "social conservatives," tilt
right on cultural values but have moderate or even liberal economic
views and outnumber the enterprisers by more than two to one.

Surely the answer has something to do with the fact that the
religious right's political vanguard is complicit in its own
subordination. For years, economic conservatives have learned that
they can enlist social conservative groups to back their agenda on
the flimsiest of pretexts. When business groups were fighting fuel
economy standards, GOP activist Grover Norquist convinced Phyllis
Schlafly's Eagle Forum to oppose them as well, according to a 1995
Washington Post story, "because the mileage goals could be portrayed
as threatening such mainstays of the family as the station wagon
and the mini-van. " According to its website, the top two
legislative items on the Christian Coalition's legislative agenda
are "Passing President Bush's Social Security reform" and "Making
permanent President Bush's 2001 federal tax cuts."

Probably the most comic example of how Republicans use social
conservatives came out of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff,
you'll recall, is a GOP lobbyist who represented Indian casinos. At
one point, he was hired to help shut down a rival casino.
Ingeniously, he hired former Christian Coalition Director Ralph
Reed, who in turn recruited Focus on the Family Chairman James
Dobson to go on the radio and incite his followers to register their
opposition to legalized gambling. The episode shows how GOP leaders
view social conservative organizations as "rent-a-mobs" that can be
manipulated into nearly any cause.

It's hard not to suspect that a good number of social conservatives
have simply been co-opted by the Republican establishment. That
would explain why, while social conservative intellectuals and
commentators have almost unanimously rejected Miers, social
conservative organizations have had a far more mixed reaction.
While some criticized Miers, Dobson praised her, and she won
unqualified endorsements from Jerry Falwell and groups like the
Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice.
With allies like these, Bush doesn't have much incentive to work
harder to reward his social conservative base. No wonder the poor,
nutty bastards got hosed again.

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