By CAROLYN LOCHHEAD
San Francisco Chronicle
March 13, 2006
A Republican pushback on Capitol Hill and smoldering conservative dissatisfaction have already killed not just the ports deal but key elements of Bush's domestic agenda, and threaten GOP control of Congress if unhappy conservatives sit out the November midterm elections.
The apostasy in some quarters runs to heretofore unthinkable depths.
"If I had a choice and Bush were running today against (Democratic President) Bill Clinton, I'd vote for Bill Clinton," said Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan administration Treasury Department official whose book, "Impostor: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," is making the rounds of conservative think tanks and talk shows. "He was clearly a much better president in a great many ways that matter to me."
Bartlett may lie at the extreme, but his critique taps into a strong undertow - reflected in a sharp drop in Bush's support among his typically solid Republican base, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday.
"Bush's compassionate conservatism has morphed into big government conservatism, and that isn't what the base is looking for," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "The White House and the congressional leadership have got to reinvigorate the Republican base. In off-year elections ... if your base isn't energized, particularly in a relatively evenly divided electorate, you've got more problems than you think you have."
Any significant drop in GOP turnout in the November midterms - when the party in power is historically weak - could prove disastrous for Republicans.
A Democratic takeover of either the House or the Senate would expose Republicans to a nightmare scenario: loss of control over policymaking and relentless congressional investigations of the White House that would consume the rest of Bush's presidency and damage Republican presidential prospects in 2008.
"Republicans are in a deep funk," said Marshall Wittman, a former aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., now at the centrist Democratic Progressive Policy Institute. "They're going to have to send out doses of Prozac in the (Republican National Committee) direct-mail pieces."
The entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for grabs in just seven months. Democrats need a gain of six seats to win back control of the Senate and 15 seats to retake the House. Bush's election strategies have always hinged on a motivated conservative base.
"At the end of the day, the bulk of us are with the president and with the leadership, but that's because we don't have any other place to go," said Manuel Miranda, head of the conservative Third Branch Conference who helped kill Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. "We suppose they're doing the best they can, but we're all very unhappy."
Although the Iraq war is hurting Bush with all voters, the deeper conservative discontent is with the spectacular growth of spending during the last five years that rivals that of a famously free-spending Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson.
Frustration over spending now threatens to overshadow Bush's accomplishments that conservatives love: his first-term tax cuts and his nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
"I think it's the biggest reason our base is so disenchanted with Republicans right now," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "The president has been great on tax cuts, and been great on a few issues, economic growth, pretty good on trade - little hiccup on some steel tariffs there - but I think most of us recognize that these tax cuts are increasingly difficult to defend politically because of the increase in spending."
Moving to stanch the damage, Bush called last week for Congress to grant him a line-item veto to prevent members from redirecting money in spending bills to their pet projects, a practice known as earmarking that has achieved notoriety under the GOP. The Congressional Research Service counted 15,877 earmarks in 2005, almost four times as many as in 1994, when Democrats last held a House majority.
What Bush didn't say is that he already has the power to eliminate 95 percent of these earmarks.
A Congressional Research Service report requested by Flake and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., found that most earmarks are slipped into committee reports but are not part of the legislation and not legally binding.
"The president could instruct the federal agencies tomorrow not to fund any of them," Flake said. "The president has a lot more authority and control than he's willing to admit right now, and we wish he'd use it. That's something he could do right now, and it would engender just a ton of support among Republicans everywhere, and frankly Democrats.
"The indoor rain forest in Iowa - there are things that are just as ugly as the bridge to nowhere," Flake said, referring to a pair of highly criticized earmarks. "He could simply instruct the agency, 'Don't fund that.' Believe me, I've had discussions. We've recommended it. We just can't get him to do it."
Many conservatives remain furious over the new prescription drug benefit in Medicare passed in 2003, the biggest entitlement expansion since Johnson created Medicare in 1965. It took effect at the start of this year.
"The one big strategic error - which was a political error and an economic error of grand proportions - was the prescription drug bill," Keene said.
Bush and the GOP leaders who rammed it through Congress hoped the drug benefit would neutralize health care as a political issue for Republicans. Instead it is proving an enormous liability. Its cost - more than a trillion dollars over 10 years and more than the entire unfunded liability in Social Security - angered conservatives, and it has backfired politically among seniors who typically turn out heavily in off-year elections. Even though seniors got an expensive new benefit, many complain that it is too confusing and offers too many choices, an idea Democrats have encouraged.
The drug benefit was the last straw for Bartlett. "That's not what conservatives and that's not what Republicans are supposed to do," he said. "They're not supposed to create massive new entitlement programs, and they did."
Conservatives contend Bush has never resisted spending, starting with the gigantic farm bill in 2001 and continuing with his failure to veto a single bill. Bush is the longest-serving president to do so since John Quincy Adams in 1829.
"There's a sense that Republicans are not the party of reforming government and ending big spending," Miranda said. "Although people gave the president a pass because of the war cost, there's a sense that there's just no principled approach to government spending."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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