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The Conservative Revolt

This column was written by Fred Barnes.
Why have so many conservatives suddenly revolted against President Bush, nearly five years into his presidency? I think their split with Bush is ill advised, counterproductive, and in some ways childish. But there's no doubt it's happening and it's serious. And there's more to it than disappointment with his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. So why exactly has this revolt broken out now? I've come up with six reasons, and there may be more.

One, a revolt was inevitable, sooner or later, simply because Bush is not a conventional conservative. He deviates on the role of the federal government, on domestic spending, on education, on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and on immigration. Given this kindling, it took only the spark of the Miers nomination to ignite a conservative backlash.

Bush, of course, is a conservative, but a different kind of conservative. His tax cuts, support for social issues, hawkish position on national security and terrorism, and rejection of the Kyoto protocols make him so. He's also killed the ABM and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties, kept the United States out of the international criminal court, defied the United Nations, and advocated a shift in power from Washington to individuals through an "ownership society." On some issues — partial privatization of Social Security is the best example — he is a bolder conservative than Ronald Reagan, the epitome of a conventional conservative.

Two, Bush has not courted leaders of the conservative movement. He's left that to his adviser Karl Rove, who did an excellent job until he was distracted by the investigation of the CIA leak case. Movement conservatives feel Bush doesn't respect them. They may be right.

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Three, the White House has grown a bit arrogant and self-centered. That's what naturally occurs after a president is reelected. The White House thinks its interests are more significant than those of members of Congress. In fact, their interests (winning a war, for instance) usually are. But senators and House members who are running for reelection, while Bush won't have to face the electorate again, regard this White House attitude with resentment. They may be small-minded, but it's understandable.

Four, Bush is down. His job approval is at an all-time low. He is under fire, unfairly, for his handling of the Katrina rescue and recovery. His bid this year for Social Security reform failed. All of which has provoked the classic Washington response to the plight of a political foe in trouble: kick 'em while they're down. Many conservatives, who rarely complained when Bush was riding high, have joined in the kicking.

Five, the press is happy to abet the revolt. For the media, the situation is the best of all worlds. Not only is a conservative president in trouble, but the media can concentrate on covering conservatives who are bashing one of their own. Two days ago, reporters covering a press conference by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer abandoned him when Republican Senator Sam Brownback walked by. They rushed to Brownback, a skeptic on the Miers nomination, in hopes he would bash Bush or Miers or both.

Six, the Miers nomination didn't just trigger the revolt. It provoked deep anger toward Bush as well. The feeling of conservative critics was that Bush had trivialized an enormously important Supreme Court nomination by choosing his legal counsel. Despite Bush's assurances, they are doubtful Miers will turn out to be a judicial conservative.

Can the broken relationship between Bush and conservatives be repaired? Certainly. It's probably just a political phase anyway. And if Miers makes a strong case for herself as a judicial conservative during her confirmation hearings, the conservative anger will begin to fade. But there's bound to be a residue of ill will, which means the rapport between Bush and many conservatives will never be quite the same again.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

By Fred Barnes.

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