Despite President Bush’s rock-bottom poll numbers, a horrendously mismanaged war and a growing awareness that the President has betrayed them on a host of issues from immigration to government spending, conservatives seem unwilling to recognize their own role as “enablers” of a failed President.
And even worse, they seem ready to repeat their mistake in selecting a 2008 champion.
It is worth remembering that before he became president, then-Governor George Bush had to convince the Republican elders that he was their man: solidly conservative, more reliable than John McCain and an easy sell to the voters by virtue of his family name. He courted and was tutored by the likes of Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Dick Cheney. They returned from the meetings confident of his bona fides and assured donors that he would be a safe choice for the G.O.P. establishment.
The party faithful convinced themselves that he would remain true to conservative principles despite the irksome references to “compassionate conservatism”—an overt dig at the conservatism many of his supporters believed needed no modifier.
If he seemed at war with the English language, had not traveled extensively and was intellectually incurious, that was all irrelevant, according to their elaborate rationalizations. The media was always mocking conservatives as non-intellectuals, and this was more of the same stereotyping; he had “people smarts”; he was a “hedgehog” who knew only a few things but knew them well, while Al Gore was the “fox” who would race from topic to topic, accomplishing nothing.
He’d be just fine, they said.
Well, he turned out to be not so fine. Conservatives had sold themselves, not to mention the country, short. Yes, President Bush cut taxes. But he also added Medicare Part D, the largest entitlement expansion in a generation, federalized K-12 education with “No Child Left Behind” and failed to veto a single spending bill. From the perspective of fiscal conservatives, this was a record worthy of, well, Al Gore or John Kerry.
Then of course there was “nation building.” During the pre-campaign tutorials and the 2000 campaign, he seemed to have mastered the notion that America doesn’t do well imposing itself on other cultures. That opposition to foreign adventures vanished after 9/11, when his administration immediately set about planning to democratize the Middle East by remaking Iraq.
And the worst insult of all, from conservatives’ viewpoint, was that the President eventually had the nerve to train his sights directly on them. As he pursued immigration—an endeavor that angered a large segment of the conservative base—the President and his surrogates began talking about his conservative critics with the same disdainful language he had previously reserved for Democrats.
According to the administration, the critics did not have the country’s interests at heart and were racist and ignorant.
The base was predictably outraged, and right-leaning bloggers and conservative columnists protested that they had been betrayed. But none of them should have been shocked.
Had they been more honest, they would have acknowledged that they had anointed a minimally qualified man with limited intellectual skills. He had voiced token support for their causes, but his narrow experience and sheltered life had left him unprepared for the intellectual and personal demands of the Presidency.
Unable to marshal facts and persuade a skeptical public on Iraq, immigration or Social Security, he resorted to emotional pleas and empty buzzwords. When his advisors failed him, he had no independent source of knowledge or analytical skills to guide him back on course. Moreover, the prized trait of Bush loyalty quickly lapsed into stubborn cronyism; conservatives, like the rest of the public, reacted in horror as Bush advanced unqualified friends like Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales.
This experience might have chastened the conservative establishment, but they—like the Bourbon kings who remembered everything and learned nothing—are on the verge of doing it again.
First, they insist on ideological purity, attempting to define Rudy Giuliani out of the mainstream of the party. Then they goad a smart, reform-minded former governor, Mitt Romney, into becoming a human pretzel, cheering as he contorts to adopt their pet social views while ruining his viability.
Having done this, conservative insiders have flagged down the next undistinguished, albeit appealing, fellow to fit the bill of conservative standard bearer: Fred Thompson. (He communicates! He creates pithy ripostes to Michael Moore! He thinks Iran is a danger!)
Once again, they are enchanted by the banal. They seem unmoved by his lack of accomplishment in any field of endeavor other than acting. The highlights of his Senate record seem to be a single bill to track wasteful spending, an ineptly run investigation on illegal Chinese campaign contributions and stewardship of a McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill that most of them despise. And so far this year, Mr. Thompson has yet to offer any specific policy proposals.
A track record of determined leadership, intellectual creativity, extemporaneous speaking skills and well-thought-out plans for the future should be minimal qualifications for the Presidency. Should conservatives reflect on the error of their previous choice, they might adopt criteria more meaningful than a willingness to genuflect to ideological convention. If not, the next chosen candidate will be as hapless as the last.