Crashing the party

Daniel Casse is senior director of the White House Writers Group, a communications group based in Washington. He has served as an advisor to four Republican presidential campaigns.

REPUBLICANS ARE feuding with one another. Again.

In what increasingly appears to be the leitmotif of the Bush administration, leading Republicans and conservatives broke ranks with the president last week, this time over his staunch defense of the Dubai ports deal. House Republicans boldly threatened to override any presidential veto. Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin rallied her readers to help stop what she called “the port sellout.” Conservative talk radio was ablaze with mutiny. By midweek, the pressure became too great, and the company pulled out of the project before the White House had to wave the white flag.

Although the ports deal seems to have disappeared as a fall election issue, it joins a long list of unforgotten grievances that conservative Republicans have had against President Bush since the beginning of his administration. As the list has grown, so has anger toward the president even by erstwhile supporters.

In his new book, “Impostor,” conservative budget expert Bruce Bartlett excoriates Bush as a traitor to the Reagan legacy. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has suggested that the Jack Abramoff affair is a symptom of a new Republican culture that has become indifferent to government largesse. William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the modern conservative movement, has recently announced that he believes the war in Iraq was a mistake.

In Washington, meanwhile, the conservative think tanks have been stewing about Bush’s unprecedented levels of spending since he signed the Medicare drug benefit legislation in 2003 -- the largest entitlement expansion ever. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation calls the Bush years “an era of massive, unsustainable spending increases and budget deficits.”

Indeed, since his reelection in 2004, Bush seems to have drifted from one Republican revolt to the next. The sense of conservative betrayal in the face of the Harriett Miers nomination gave way to conservative furor over federal spending plans to rebuild New Orleans. No sooner had that passed when some Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing the president for his domestic wiretapping program.


Democrats, liberals and the mainstream news media have never been able to make sense of these internecine Republican battles. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan, they have insisted on treating most Republican disputes as wars between the moderate and conservative factions of the party. That is why they pay so much attention to squabbles over abortion, and why they took such glee when, in 2003, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords defected from the party, temporarily giving Democrats a working majority in the Senate.

But those conflicts do not really capture what now roils the GOP. Today’s battles are part of an ongoing attempt to redefine and realign conservative politics. Three years ago, conservative columnist George F. Will wrote that, under Bush, American conservatism was undergoing an identity crisis, and he was right. That intellectual confusion is at the heart of what now causes so much tumult inside the Republican Party.

To be sure, Bush is a conservative, in many ways more conservative than Reagan. He proposed and enacted the largest tax cuts in American history. He has been outspoken on social controversies such as stem cell research and gay marriage. He has appointed conservative judges to the federal bench. He is also a deeply religious man, a quality that has given him a special connection to the country’s large base of evangelical voters.

Yet on other fronts, he has left his conservative supporters scratching their heads. He imposed protectionist steel quotas in what seemed like a cynical move to curry favor with Rust Belt voters. He caved in to pressure to sign a much-maligned campaign finance bill. And he has never hesitated to expand the scope and power of the federal government to achieve conservative ends, whether it is testing in public schools, faith-based charity or the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Bush’s ideological inconstancy reflects the unsettled nature of GOP politics today and the fact that Republicans are facing the post-Reagan era with discomfort.

Since Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republican coalition has always been an uneasy one. Yet there were issues of agreement that masked the deeper divisions beneath the surface. In the 1980s, for instance, Republicans could rally around tax cuts and a buildup of the Pentagon. In the 1990s, under Newt Gingrich’s guidance, the party focused on welfare reform, a balanced budget and successfully ousting the Democratic barons from power in Congress.

Today, no such unifying issues exist. Even national security and the war on terrorism, once Bush’s strongest suits, have become the source of the party’s greatest schism, separating neoconservatives, who believe that fighting Islamic tyranny is a fundamental responsibility, from realists and libertarians.

Rather than trying to unite his party behind less contentious issues, Bush has been steadily steering the Republican Party into policy areas where it never has never been very confident but that can no longer be ignored: healthcare, immigration, retirement. Coupled with national security, they have become some of the most contentious, pressing and divisive issues the country faces.

Most of the loudest Bush critics within the Republican and conservative world believe that the party must return to its Reaganite, shrink-the-government roots. “The Republican Party needs to start a dialogue that will get it back on track as the party of small government before it loses what is left of its principles, reputation and heritage,” Bartlett writes in “Impostor.”

Bush, however, seems to have recognized that tackling these difficult and long-term issues requires Republican imagination to go beyond “limited government.” Replacing our Social Security system with individual, private savings accounts, after all, requires more government spending, at least in the short-term. Increasing border patrols, administering a guest-worker program or hiring more Arab-language linguists at the CIA and FBI requires larger, more expensive government. The much-derided Medicare drug plan actually has, buried within it, the first seeds of means-testing and market competition among health plans, which conservative Republicans have long sought. But to get even this, Bush had to sign on to a very expensive entitlement expansion.

This tension between the modern conservative agenda of promoting accountability, competition and individual choice on the one hand and the Reagan vision of small government on the other is rarely acknowledged by Republican leaders. But it is at the heart of many of the disputes between Bush and his conservative critics.

For his part, Bush has never successfully packaged his ideas as a new vision for the Republican Party. “Compassionate conservatism,” the line he used during his first campaign, died an early and much-deserved death.

Nevertheless, the basic framework for a new kind of conservative, Republican politics is out there. In addition to his support for accountability and choice in domestic policies, Bush has indirectly advanced the case for what I have called “strong government” -- harnessing the power of the federal government to achieve conservative ends, domestically as well as abroad.

Strong government may in some cases require bigger government. But it is in stark contrast to the large, inept and weak government that characterized Democratic programs for decades. Bush’s strong government recognizes that the U.S. has no choice but to lead the fight against Islamic terrorism and to try to promote some form of democratic government in the Middle East. But it also recognizes that laissez faire is an insufficient response if the policy goal is accountability in schools or a transformation of our entitlement programs.

Alas, it is hard to identify anyone in the elected Republican world beyond the White House who has championed a philosophy of this type of strong government. In fact, the most damning critique of the Bush administration is that it has failed to foster political surrogates and intellectual allies. There are few “Bush Republicans” out there. When controversy arises, the White House press spokesman is often the only one making the case for the president.

This failure will become more apparent as Republicans start readying themselves for a 2008 presidential race. This weekend in Memphis, Tenn., the first “beauty contest” of possible Republican presidential nominees is being held for an audience of 1,800 Southern and Midwest GOP activists. With the president’s approval rating in the low 40s, it is safe to assume that none of them are running on a platform of continuing the Bush legacy.

But what platform will they run on? Bush has shown that if the Republicans want to seize leadership of issues such as entitlement reform and domestic security, they have to be prepared to make some concessions on limiting the size of government. Whether the next Republican leader agrees remains highly uncertain.