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Crashing the party

President Bush's policies have reawakened a GOP identity crisis.

March 12, 2006|Daniel Casse | 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.

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