Reuniting The Conservative Base

November 27, 2006

It seems like everyone wants to be like Ronald Reagan these days — at least those with presidential aspirations. Gov. Mitt Romney says he’s a Reagan Republican, and so does John McCain — amazingly. Some Democrats even identify with the Gipper.

Indeed, mainstream conservatives, present company included, believe Republicans should revert to Reagan conservatism. But this will be easier said than done given the different set of problems facing the nation today, the sharp disagreements among those who each claim to represent Reagan conservatism and the lack of a clear leader of the conservative movement.

President Bush has been quite conservative on certain highly important issues such as taxes and foreign policy. But he has never even purported to be a movement guy and has sometimes dissociated himself from mainstream conservatism, as with his insistence that he’s a “compassionate conservative.”

Apparently his idea of “compassionate conservatism” is that the government should stay big and intrusive in the domestic spending department, but it should spend the money in ways presumably more palatable to conservatives, such as on the faith-based initiative or by demanding standards in education.

But the point here is neither to rehash the merits of “compassionate conservatism” nor to criticize (or praise) President Bush for having promoted it. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the very idea of conservatism under President Bush’s tenure has been muddled. If the movement is to be reunited and reignited, a leader or group of leaders must emerge both to redefine the message and rally the grass roots.

President Bush could give that effort a significant boost if he were to promote a truly conservative agenda the next two years on those domestic issues to which he has pledged his solemn vow of conservatism.

Granted, no matter what happens on domestic issues, the myriad problems concerning the war on terror, including and especially Iraq, will remain and have to be addressed. But the war is no excuse to succumb to lame-duck inertia on vital domestic issues.

On the domestic side President Bush could aggressively push to make the income tax cuts permanent, finally eliminate or drastically reduce the estate tax and aggressively pursue entitlement and health care reform by seeking to increase privatization, consumer choice and market forces in both. We could bank on the Democratic congressional majority’s fierce opposition. The stage would be set for a showdown between the president (and the congressional minority) and the congressional majority.

But rumors are circulating — and have gained a measure of credibility with a recent op-ed from the president’s former economic advisor, Lawrence Lindsey — that President Bush is considering compromising on his no-tax-increases policy in exchange for cooperation from Democrats on entitlement reform.

If the rumors are true and the president does cave on the income tax issue — even if it involves only the payroll tax and even if done for the noble goal of achieving much-needed entitlement reform, conservatives will be livid. Though few conservatives expect pure Reagan conservatism from President Bush — mainly because he always telegraphed that he wasn’t quite the purist — we certainly do expect him to be true to his supply side ideology.

He couldn’t have been clearer in the last six years about his unwavering commitment to reducing the income tax burden across the board. He couldn’t have been clearer that he had learned from and would not repeat his father’s no-new-taxes betrayal.

Despite the president’s shortcomings, most of us have believed that he had the savvy not to fall for any Democratic ploy like his dad did to rationalize breaching such a firm and unequivocal promise. Bush 41, you will recall, reneged on his no-new-taxes pledge because congressional Democrats fraudulently promised, as an inducement, to reduce spending — another conservative bugaboo.

History would be playing a cruel joke if Bush 43 were to do almost the exact same thing for the sake of progress on the entitlement bugaboo. But it will be far worse if 43 breaches, because so many of us have been convinced that he — as distinguished from his “kinder and gentler” father — is genuinely committed to supply side economics.

The best course President Bush could pursue for the nation, for the GOP and for his own presidential legacy is to redouble his efforts to achieve income tax, capital gains tax, estate tax, entitlement and health care reform — all while initiating true domestic spending cuts.

Even if he fails on one or more of these, he still will have gone a long way toward reuniting the base — at least the economic conservatives — and serving up a black and white issue for the GOP presidential and congressional candidates in 2008, especially if he uses his bully pulpit to expose the demagoging class warriors on the left for who they are.