Even With His Flaws, Bush Is the Only Choice

Spring isn’t here, but the Presidential campaign is, as charges and countercharges envelope the men who aspire to execute the laws.

Torments will not open my lips on one charge. Whenever it arises, Republicans should retire to a desert island, minus their cell phones, and if any enterprising journalist tracks them down, they must say, “I do not know; I cannot tell,” and go back to weaving huts out of palm fronds. Never again, never again. You all can go down that road again if you like, but not with me; as Edith Piaf almost said, Je regrette tout.

The charge that President Bush shirked his National Guard duty unravels as his main accuser, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, turns out to have malicious motives arising from a “personal struggle with the Guard over medical benefits,” as The Boston Globe puts it. The scandal has moved from the shocking-revelation stage to the “questions remain” stage, which means that it can drag on indefinitely, to ever-diminishing effect. Meanwhile, we might ask ourselves why valor became our test of office. One test, surely; but the most important? George Washington was a brave man and a great President. Douglas MacArthur was a brave man who never got to be President. Jefferson Davis was a brave man who was president of a country that shouldn’t have been. What you might do in the next war is at least as important as what you did in the last.

More interesting, for George W. Bush, than these pyrotechnics is the thunder on the right: the grumbling in his conservative base. No conservative Republicans are going to vote for John Kerry, and none of them has mounted an intramural challenge, as Pat Buchanan did to Mr. Bush’s father in 1992. The danger for Mr. Bush is that some of them might stay home, and if this election were as close as 2000, mere handfuls could put victory even beyond the reach of the Supreme Court.

Conservatives are angry with Mr. Bush for three reasons. The first is his proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants. He specifically rejects the A-word, yet by offering a grace period for illegals who are already here, he is proposing amnesty in fact. What then should we think of foreigners who apply to immigrate here legally? Are they fools? What should we think of new Americans who begin their life here by breaking the law? Do we raise so few criminals ourselves that we need to import them?

Backers of amnesty don the robes of realism. Pointing to the hundreds of thousands of illegals in our midst, they ask if conservatives would round them all up for deportation. But that would not be necessary. Every year, x number of illegals arrive, and y number go home. This has always been true of immigrants, including legal ones, where economics is the primary motivation: Our dregs are the world’s cream, and some, after skimming it, enjoy it in the old country. As of now, x is greater than y ; hence, we have a net influx. But even a limited crackdown, especially on employers, would change the cost-benefit calculation and boost y -hopefully, until it exceeded x .

Worse than amnesty is the administration’s record on spending. Even the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is considering taking a whack at Mr. Bush’s proposed budget. When the porksters of the House are the voice of prudence, things are bad indeed.

In Mr. Bush’s favor, it must be said that he never promised spending discipline. He ran as a “compassionate conservative,” which-whatever the religious freight of the phrase might be-must mean, as worldly institutions have always enacted it, giving us money that has first been taken from us. When politicians preach compassion, count the spoons.

A trillion-dollar economy can throw off a lot of boodle. Can it fight a war at the same time? We are engaged in two countries, and will remain so throughout Mr. Bush’s second term. The Terror War will send us other fronts. Suppose it lasts 30 years-not an unreasonable assumption. Is Mr. Bush stretching us too thin in Year 3?

A third issue, tiny in dollars, big in symbolism, is Mr. Bush’s proposal to increase the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Art spending is a pet hate of conservatives, and who could say they were wrong when it went to chocolate-smeared performance artists? To his credit, Mr. Bush sent to the N.E.A. Dana Gioia, poet, administrator and no fan of chocolate. But when Mr. Bush goes home, in 2005 or 2009, someone else will come in. Quality cannot be guaranteed, only continued spending.

Conservatives probably should accept the notion that federal art programs are here to stay. We are no longer Jefferson’s yeoman republic, nor even Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, but a mature commercial state with an official culture. Conservatives should cultivate habits of good taste and learn to fight for them politically. And yet, one cannot forget that the zip of American art has always come not from officialdom, but from eccentric patrons, like James Laughlin and Lincoln Kirstein, or from the churn of vulgarity that throws up drunken journalists like Poe or pot-smoking entertainers like Louis Armstrong.

Some conservatives, viewing the general dismay, lecture the ranks in the stern tones of a sergeant major. Don’t we know there is an election on? Don’t we know there is a war on? Do we want the peacenik lieutenant to win the first, and lose the second?

No, and no. Nothing focuses the mind like mass murder. We have our orders, for the rest of our lives. Given the realities of terror, that may not be a long time. We do not, however, lose the obligation to keep contradictory notions in our heads at the same time. George W. Bush, against all odds, may be the man for our generation; and he may, at the same time, do many secondary yet essential things badly. Churchill stopped Hitler, but could not save India or Eastern Europe. Lincoln freed the slaves, whose descendants waited a century after he was murdered to vote. Winning involves loss. Nobody promised us a perfect life. We know that; we’re conservatives.