In my view, President Bush’s re-election prospects depend less on our success in Iraq than on his success on the domestic front, read broadly to include the economy of course, but also spending and other aspects of domestic policy. Frankly, although they have been relatively muted in their criticism, much of it so far has been a disappointment to his core base of movement conservatives. The litany of obvious mistakes has been well documented—the steel tariff, the agriculture subsidy bill, etc.—but there have been at least as many mistakes of omission as of commission. My concern is that the President has not used the “bully pulpit” and his position as “teacher-in-chief” nearly to the extent that he should. There are numerous examples:
· The Supreme Court decision in the University of Michigan affirmative action case that effectively entrenched the concept of diversity through racial preferences as a compelling public interest was, in effect, applauded by the White House.
· The tax cut was a big victory, but was sold by the administration simply as a stimulus package, without any reference to the validity of supply side fiscal policy or its long-term impact on the size and role of the government in people’s lives.
· The most significant reason for the return of budget deficits is the largest non-defense discretionary spending spree since the Great Society of the 1960’s, mostly for education, health care, and transportation, which was largely condoned by the administration.
· Bush is the first President since John Quincy Adams not to have vetoed a single bill at this point in his term in office.
· The Senate Democrats get away with blocking Bush’s judicial appointments without a serious fight and without even a real filibuster, allowing advice and consent to be completely subverted into a partisan contest requiring a super-majority for confirmation.
· Aggressive leadership on the wedge cultural issues that are crucial to social conservatives is avoided except for glancing references in occasional speeches.
· Spending on “corporate welfare” has reached record levels, almost three times the amount that will be spent on the war in Iraq this year, and, in the case of the agriculture subsidies, undermines our credibility in world free trade negotiations.
· The plan to privatize Social Security has taken a back seat, and the priority of marketizing prescription drug benefits and Medicare has obviously been subordinated.
· Legislation to provide school choice for the District of Columbia, which would provide a major breakthrough for the concept nationally, is languishing in the Senate without significant vocal support from the White House.
Does this resemble the party of Ronald Reagan? Is this all that is left of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994? Has “compassionate” conservatism become “big government” conservatism? Bush has already proven himself as a transformational foreign policy and wartime leader and, unless the Democrats significantly improve on their current message, he will probably be re-elected provided the situation in Iraq does not become a disaster and the economy continues to rebound, but I remember a line from his acceptance speech in 2000—“they did not lead, we will”, and I believe he and his advisors are underestimating the latent political support for much more aggressive advocacy of conservative domestic policy. He should use his 2004 State of the Union message to aggressively re-launch such an agenda.