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For the Nation, This Bush May Be Just Right

July 12, 2001|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail:

"Will Bush abandon conservatism?"

That was a recent headline on, the Web site run by veteran direct-mail activist Richard Viguerie. Viguerie left the question hanging, at least for now, but the answer is likely to emerge soon enough.

In the minds of suspicious right-wingers, this President Bush, of course, cannot be completely separated from that other President Bush. The earlier Bush, the 41st president, campaigned for the White House in 1988 as the heir to Ronald Reagan but then broke faith with Gipperism, most notably when he repudiated his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. And now the son is emphasizing his continuity with his moderate father; last week the two men appeared together sporting baseball caps emblazoned with "41" and "43."

So conservatives, mindful of this suspect lineage, are scrutinizing this Bush for signs of deviationism. And they're likely to find plenty of discouraging indicators.

Whoa. Isn't Bush's problem that he's too conservative? Ex-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), for example, jumped ship in May, declaring that Bush had pushed the party too far to the right.

Indeed, on a slew of issues--environment, energy, HMO bill of rights, campaign finance reform, stem cell research--the president is positioned well to the starboard side of public opinion. Which probably explains why his own approval ratings are in the low 50s.

Just a year ago, Bill Clinton, scandal-scarred as he was, was riding high in the mid 60s. What explains that difference? Is it the ideology and partisanship of the press? Maybe, but Bush is the one who needs to get reelected, not the media, and so he's the one who's likely to change.

On some matters, Bush already has changed, as White House politicos get the upper hand. The "pragmatists" don't necessarily make better decisions, but they make different decisions, to wit, the abrupt abandonment of the military firing range on Vieques, Puerto Rico. Another example is the education bill, which the White House clings to, even as it abandons school vouchers and quadruples spending for bilingual education.

A third instance is the administration's faith-based charitable choice initiative. The ACLU-type left has always hated the idea of smiling upon religion--which, of course, made conservatives like the idea all the more. Yet the technical and constitutional problems of funding religiously inspired social work without funding religion itself are proving to be insurmountable. And so, as the initiative sinks into the quagmire of compromise, purists on the right are jumping clear. On Monday, Marvin Olasky, a key Bush theoretician in the past, wrote a stinging op-ed piece claiming that the White House had "reneged" on an earlier funding commitment.

Then came even more trouble for the initiative. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Salvation Army had a deal--or thought it had a deal--with the White House that would have permitted it to exclude gays from Uncle Sam-funded programs. Without admitting anything, the Bushies backed away from whatever they might have promised or hinted. And so the prospect increased that any legislation that might ever be signed into law will include stringent federal supervision.

Plenty of conservatives will not like such regulatory provisos, not because they are homophobes but because it's a basic conservative principle that private "mediating institutions" should have the right to conduct their operations without supervision from the state. Most likely, however, the matter is moot because the initiative is likely to collapse under its own unwieldy weight.

In the wake of such fiascoes, a pattern has emerged that is likely to persist for the remainder of the current presidency. Bush may have gotten his start deep in the heart of Texas, but now that he's been knocked around a bit at the national level, the larger realities of governing a whole nation are beginning to sink in.

And so Bush is destined for a crackup with conservatives. Such a fight won't necessarily be bad for either side. Conservatives will get their blood up, which should increase the direct-mail revenue for the Richard Viguerie-type right. And Bush will be positioned in the center, where he needs to be if he wants to get reelected. The scenario is so pat and predictable, one almost wonders if it wasn't planned all along.

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