Interesting article in today’s NYT op-ed section by Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review about why conservatives have been less than pleased with many actions by the Republican leadership, including the President, lately:
Why Conservatives Are Divided
By RAMESH PONNURU
Published: October 17, 2005
CONSERVATIVES are conducting a bitter debate about President Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Some see a divide between populists and elitists: they say that the conservative masses are gung-ho for the nomination, which is opposed only by Beltway insiders.
The truth is that the debate, like most political debates, is largely among elites. Ms. Miers’s strongest supporters are in the White House elite, and they argue that conservatives should trust her because she is also part of that elite.
Her strongest opponents are in the network of legal conservatives who have sought to move the courts back toward what they regard as the original understanding of the Constitution. (These legal conservatives are not always vocal in public about Ms. Miers, but they are behind the opposition of other conservatives.) Polls show that rank-and-file conservative voters are split.
Nor is religion the dividing line: there are evangelicals on both sides. If Mr. Bush had nominated an evangelical like Michael McConnell, almost all conservatives would have strongly supported his decision. Supporters would not, however, have had to make his religion one of his central selling points, since he is also an appeals-court judge and legal scholar widely respected by liberals and conservatives alike.
To see where the fault lines really lie, it helps to review the history of conservatives’ relationship with President Bush.
Conservatives entered the presidential race of 2000 holding a weak hand. The failure of the “Republican revolution” under Newt Gingrich had demonstrated that there was no sizable constituency for shutting down federal programs and departments. Republicans had previously succeeded in running against big government because it was associated, in the public mind, with a cultural liberalism weakened by its perceived excesses on issues of race and crime, sex and family, religion and patriotism, and welfare and work. President Bill Clinton had systematically detached big government from those liabilities, most significantly by signing welfare reform.
Mr. Clinton’s political success got the Republicans to stop crusading against big government. While running for president, George W. Bush pointedly denounced the idea that “if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved.” The Gingrich Republicans had tried to abolish the Department of Education. Mr. Bush said he would give it new responsibilities.
Conservatives who were paying attention in 2000 knew that Mr. Bush would not be a budget-cutter. They knew, as well, that he did not share their opposition to race-conscious affirmative action, or the desire that many of them had for immigration restrictions. They calculated, however, that he would be good on their highest-priority issues - and that given difficult political circumstances, they had to give ground on their lower-priority issues. Mr. Bush could be counted on, conservatives thought, to make the nation more secure, to appoint “strict constructionist” judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to cut taxes and to reform entitlements.
Moreover, Mr. Bush’s reliability on those issues would mitigate the impact of his deviations. Conservative justices would set limits on racial preferences even if the president did not. Tax cuts would restrain federal spending, and Social Security reform based on private investment would make voters less dependent on government and thus, over time, more tolerant of budget cuts. So conservatives placed their bets on Mr. Bush.
But five years into Mr. Bush’s presidency, conservatives have cause to re-evaluate their compromises. While most conservatives supported the invasion of Iraq, many have grave doubts about the conduct of the war. Medicare has been expanded more than it has been reformed. Social Security reform appears to be dead for now. Tax cuts may have inhibited spending - perhaps Medicare would have been expanded even more without them - but they have hardly imposed anything that could fairly be called “restraint.”
The president appears not just to oppose immigration restrictions, but to be committed to liberalization. Hurricane Katrina shook conservatives, too. They rightly rejected overheated criticisms of Mr. Bush, especially those that portrayed him as indifferent to the suffering of blacks. But they want the federal government to perform its core functions competently.
It was against this backdrop that Mr. Bush nominated Ms. Miers. Counting on Mr. Bush to appoint conservative judges had always been risky. Even if he picked a conservative nominee, that nominee would have to be confirmed and then stay conservative on the bench. Conservatives are well aware that of the five justices who voted, in effect, to extend constitutional protection to partial-birth abortion, three were appointed by Republican presidents committed to “strict constructionism.” That record of mixed results, combined with the increased prominence of the courts in American life, raised the stakes when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired.
In the past, conservatives had overlooked disappointments and disagreements for the sake of getting solid appointments to the Supreme Court. The president’s judicial appointments will be among his most lasting legacies. But then Mr. Bush nominated Ms. Miers. Conservatives are not sure she’s a legal conservative at all, and they are still less sure that she will be a forceful advocate for originalism. Not even her strongest defenders outside the administration say she would have been their top choice.
Those defenders say that we should nevertheless trust Mr. Bush’s judgment. At the very moment that conservatives have begun to conclude that their bets on Mr. Bush are no longer paying off, Mr. Bush has asked them to double down. That request has even pro-Miers conservatives feeling disillusioned, and other conservatives feeling betrayed. That’s what’s dividing conservatives - and it’s why they’re thinking more and more about life after President Bush.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, is writing a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.