The right expels Bush.

By

In "The Man Who Would Be King," the late-nineteenth-century Rudyard
Kipling story later turned into a movie, an English adventurer named
Daniel Dravot becomes the regent of Kafiristan, a remote
mountainous region north of India. Dravot leads the Kafiri people
to a string of battlefield victories, and they receive him as a
God, the son of Alexander the Great, and turn their treasure over
to him. But then they see him bleed, and--discovering he is mortal
after all--turn on him with unbridled rage. Mobs of tribesmen
denounce him as a fraud, chase him out of the temple, and
ultimately send him plummeting to his doom.Something similar is happening now to George W. Bush. Not long ago,
conservatives hailed him as a fearless leader in the war on
terrorism, a great man of history, Reagan's son. Long after the
patriotic upsurge following September 11 had crested, the
conservative base held him in awe. "George W. Bush has been a
resolute and even heroic president in a terrifying time," wrote
David Frum. Bush is "not only a good and trusted war leader, but a
cunning and bold political leader," editorialized The Washington
Times.

Now his former acolytes are furiously denouncing him. The American
Spectator recently published a special issue devoted mostly to
detailing the litany of Bush sins. One recent book (Impostor, by
conservative columnist Bruce Bartlett), a forthcoming book
(Conservatives Betrayed, by right-wing activist Richard Viguerie),
and innumerable op-eds (e.g., "how the gop lost its way," by Reagan
biographer Craig Shirley) condemn the president as an ideological
turncoat.

Of course, conservatives have been demanding greater fidelity from
Bush since he first ran for president. But that was all part of the
normal give-and- take of conservative politics--the true believers
staying ever-vigilant to ensure their three-quarters of a loaf does
not get whittled down to half. What's happening now is different.
Conservative intellectuals and activists, the right's ideological
vanguard, have decided that Bush is not Reagan's son after all.
Indeed, they have discovered that he is not, and never has been, a
conservative, but rather that he is a fraud masquerading as one.

The banishment of politicians from the tribe is a recurring practice
on the right. George H.W. Bush was the most famous victim, but Newt
Gingrich, Bob Dole, and many others have all faced the wrath of
Washington conservatives. It is a highly stylized ritual, often
conducted in terms baffling to those not deeply versed in the mores
of the movement. It is also deeply cruel, as the victims are often
faithful adherents who work assiduously to carry out the tribe's
wishes--and they never see the mob coming for them until it's too
late.

In the especially strange case of Bush, we can begin by examining
the new conservative claim that Bush is, like his father, a
moderate. National Review's Jonah Goldberg has called Bush a
"liberal Republican." Other conservatives make the same point
implicitly, by way of historical comparison. The conservative press
in recent weeks has been flush with ideological comparisons between
the current president and George H.W. Bush or Richard Nixon, both
of whom occupy a central place in the right's demonology. In the
conservative mind, Bush has now joined his father and Nixon as
ideological apostates who expanded government and sold out the
movement in order to ingratiate themselves with liberals.

It is, to say the least, a highly idiosyncratic analysis. Let us
concede that the president has done violence to conservative
principle with his tariffs, spending, and the like. Let us also
concede, for the sake of argument, that Nixon and Bush pere can be
considered "liberal." (They certainly are by contemporary
Republican standards.) The comparison is still preposterous. Nixon
and George H.W. Bush expanded government in the pursuit of goals
amenable to many liberals. These included tougher environmental
regulation and progressive tax reform in Nixon's case, and the
Americans with Disabilities Act and an anti- deficit measure
including tax hikes in Bush's.

In sharp contrast, George W. Bush's expansions of government have,
virtually without exception, come in the service of distinctly
illiberal goals. Medicare, the energy bill, tariffs, crop
supports--all these represented subsidies from the general public
to business interests and attracted little or no support from
liberals, with respectable Brookings centrist-liberals particularly
aghast. Bush's right-wing corporatism may not reflect the kind of
conservatism that most right-leaning activists prefer, but it is a
kind of conservatism, and certainly not liberalism or moderation.

There are two reasons the right has taken up this delirious
interpretation. The first is that its adherents tend instinctively
toward paranoia. (As David Brooks acutely observed a decade ago,
"In the way that Eskimos are purported to have 39 words for snow,
the right has a code to describe conservatives who ingratiate
themselves with liberals.") When a Republican lets them down, their
thoughts immediately turn to the dark prospect that he succumbed to
the blandishments of the liberal elite. If Bush abandoned them to
sign a big- government energy bill or steel tariff, The New York
Times editorial page or Ted Kennedy must have been there whispering
encouragements in his ear. (In another column, Goldberg saw in
Bush's abandonment of conservatism the sinister hand of "moderates,
squishes, apostates, New York Times-pleasing `mavericks,'
centrists, and all the others who want to `get beyond labels' or get
a standing ovation from the Brookings Institution.")

The second reflects a calculated attempt to absolve conservatives of
Bush's failures. Look at the particulars of the indictment against
the president. The conservatives' most bitter complaints concern
Bush's "profligacy and total disregard for spending money
judiciously," as Stephen Moore puts it in The American Spectator.
But whose fault is that? As National Review editorialized in 2000,
Bush's "support for tax cuts and Social Security reform is more
important than his spending initiatives--not least because if he
succeeds on taxes and Social Security, it will be easier to limit
government in the future. " Moore himself in 2001 called tax cuts
"the best way to stop a spending spree. " Blaming Bush for his
betrayal is a way for conservatives to avoid an uncomfortable fact:
He followed to a T the strategy they urged, and it failed.

Nor are they willing to recognize that, when Bush disappointed them,
he sometimes had no choice. One of the familiar tropes of the
conservative shunning ritual is an almost pathological disregard
for the realities of public opinion. Conservatives complain about
Bush's Medicare expansion --which, indeed, was an atrocious piece
of legislation--but their complaints center less on the law's
design than its very existence. As the Republican Study Committee's
Jeff Flake, who has drawn widespread conservative praise for his
willingness to criticize Bush from the right, put it, "I never
believed that it was responsible to create this new entitlement."
Yet adding prescription drugs to Medicare was an overwhelmingly
popular idea. Do conservatives imagine Bush could have won Florida
in 2000, or any other swing state, if he opposed it? Do they think
he could have won in 2004 after reneging on that promise?

Likewise, they indignantly denounce Bush's failure to successfully
privatize Social Security in 2005. As Robert Novak wrote, "The loss
of the opportunity to expand the Republican base through massively
increased stock ownership was squandered." It certainly wasn't for
lack of trying, though. Bush campaigned tirelessly for
privatization, even in the face of hostile and ever-worsening
public opinion. (By April of 2005, voters--by nearly a 2-to-1
margin-- opposed replacing part of the guaranteed benefit with
investment income, the core of Bush's plan.) Still, the president
persevered long after failure was inevitable. In the face of his
idea's massive unpopularity, what could he possibly have done
differently?

Conservatives aren't sure, but they insist that these compromises
have cost Bush his popularity. ("If Bush held the Reaganite line on
liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad," wrote Goldberg,
"he'd be in a lot better shape" in the polls.) To the right, it is
axiomatic that any political failure can only have resulted from
ideological deviation. Accordingly, conservatives have worked out
their own interpretation of modern political history, in which
every Republican triumph results from a GOP leadership that
steadfastly upholds the conservative worldview and every defeat
results from faint-hearted moderation. This interpretation is the
source of the movement's strength. The conservative base is the
domestic version of the "Arab Street"--a mercurial and potent force
that must be constantly placated lest it explode in rage. And the
way to placate it is by making concessions to the leaders who claim
to speak for it.

The notion that conservative defections are at the heart of Bush's
polling problems is probably the most fantastical element of the
whole conservative litany. And yet, oddly enough, mainstream
reporters have eagerly and endlessly recycled the notion that
conservative defections have crippled Bush in the polls. As The
Washington Post reported recently, "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."

At the elite level, it's certainly true that conservatives have
deserted Bush. At the voter level, though, they remain loyal. Emory
University political scientist Alan Abramowitz notes that,
according to Gallup, from late April until mid-May, Bush's approval
rating among conservative Republicans held steady, dipping
imperceptibly from 79 to 77 percent. Over that same span, his
approval among moderate or liberal Republicans disintegrated,
dropping 20 points. News reports grasp onto the fact that Bush has
lost support among Republicans, but the bulk of the collapse has
occurred with the middle, not the right.

To be sure, Bush would have higher ratings if he retained 100
percent support from his base. Yet, as Abramowitz points out, the
distinctive thing about Bush's polls is how strongly his base
supports him in comparison with the rest of the country. The split
between how fellow partisans view Bush and how others view him is
higher than any other such split recorded in the history of the
Gallup poll. To have nearly 80 percent of conservative Republicans
approve of Bush's job performance--at a time when approval among
independents hovers around 20 percent--is a staggering triumph of
party discipline.

Since the conservative interpretation is so wildly at odds with
reality, the only way to make it hold together is to retroactively
define winners as ideological loyalists and losers as apostates.
This technique describes the great bulk of political analysis found
in the conservative media. Leading up to the 1998 congressional
elections, for instance, Republicans in the House of
Representatives had followed the fervent desires of the party base
by launching impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
Conservatives giddily anticipated the coming vote. "The November
elections, as we noted last issue, will and should be a referendum
on Bill Clinton. Republicans are likely to win it," editorialized
National Review.

As it happened, Republicans lost seats. National Reviews's political
worldview, though, remained remarkably unchanged. "Republicans
counted on money, incumbency, and one issue they refused even to
mention: impeachment," observed a post-election editorial. "Is it
any wonder that things didn't work out quite as well as they had
hoped?" Well, it was a wonder to anybody who had taken National
Review's analysis to heart. In retrospect, though, it was clear to
the conservative magazine why the GOP had lost. Before, impeachment
was going to produce victory. Now, they could see that the failure
to emphasize impeachment caused defeat. Furthermore, they wrote in
the same editorial, "Republicans offered no alternative agenda of
their own. Most importantly, they let tax cuts languish." The
lesson of the election, as with every election, was that
Republicans defy the base at their peril.

At any given moment, conservative activists are usually celebrating
the top officials of the Republican Party while simultaneously
demanding greater ideological fidelity from them. They are
constantly hedging their bets so they can go either way with the
clear-cut final determination. Today, conservatives "know" that
George H.W. Bush sealed his fate when he abandoned Reaganism for
mushy GOP centrism. Conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke expressed
the movement's definitive judgment when he told a conservative
gathering in late 1992, "We didn't lose this election.... Some
people whose politics we can sort of tolerate lost this election."

O'Rourke himself had tolerated Bush's politics well enough to appear
at his campaign headquarters a few months earlier to buck up staff
morale. In fact, the whole movement embraced Bush tightly during
the campaign. And, when Bush embraced the right during his 1992
convention, Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The
Washington Times, the movement organ, welcomed him back into the
fold. "Whatever differences he may have with it around the edges,
Mr. Bush embraces the core economic, cultural and national defense
principles of his party's dominant right wing and they, in turn,
have gathered around him," he wrote, predicting a Bush comeback
victory that would shock the naysayers.

With his loss of the election a few months later, though, Bush lost
his welcome place within the bosom of the movement. Immediately
following the defeat, Lambro wrote that Bush's fate had been sealed
two years before: "When Mr. Bush cynically reneged on his
no-new-taxes pledge, the linchpin of that Republican coalition, he
deeply eroded his conservative political base of support, destroyed
his credibility on tax and spending issues, and sent the economy
into the tank." In fact, as Abramowitz points out, conservative
turnout in 1992 matched its historic rate for presidential election
years, and conservatives were half as likely as GOP moderates to
defect to Ross Perot.

Even Reagan himself, before his deification, endured regular doses
of conservative complaint. Conservatives raged when he raised taxes
or signed an arms control treaty with the Soviets. (As George Will
wrote bitterly of the 1987 nuclear accord, "December 8 will be
remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.") In 1984, Policy
Review assigned eleven conservatives to write evaluations of Reagan
for a special issue, and eight delivered negative assessments. When
Reagan's popularity recovered at the end of his second term, he was
cleansed of all his ideological sins.

This is why, only now--with George W. Bush's popularity mired in a
seemingly inescapable pit--are conservatives recalling his
apostasies in such vivid detail. The list of grievances, though,
has a distinctly musty odor. Here is a typical iteration of the
complaint, as voiced by Craig Shirley: "[R]esentment is growing
over steel tariffs, prescription-drug benefits, a League of Nations
mentality, the growth of government and harebrained spending, the
McCain- Feingold campaign finance law, the increasing regulation of
political speech in the United States and endemic corruption."

Shirley, you can't be serious. One of these complaints--"a League of
Nations mentality"--is phantasmal. Another--McCain-Feingold and
increasing regulation of political speech--is double-counted. The
rest of those items all date back to the first couple of years of
the administration, when conservatives celebrated Bush rapturously.
Two years ago, he appeared before the American Conservative Union
and "basked in a rock star reception and enjoyed several standing
ovations," according to one account. The Washington Times compared
the reception to that received by Reagan himself and editorialized
that it "exposes the danger of conservative abandonment of Mr. Bush
as a myth." That fall, National Review heartily endorsed the
president, noting, "backing Bush's reelection should be an easy
decision."

Bush has strongly favored immigration since well before he took
office. Republicans have let pork-barrel spending rise almost
continuously since they took control of Congress more than a decade
ago. Only now, however, have conservatives in Washington staged
open revolts over lax border enforcement or bridges to nowhere. The
doctrinal deviations that conservatives once accepted with minor
grumbling have blossomed into full-scale heresy. The liberal author
Rick Pearlstein once said of the right's mindset, "Conservatism
never fails. It is only failed." Bush has failed. Therefore, he
cannot be a conservative.

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