Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Natives are Restless

Discontent with Bush is clearly building across all sections of the Right. If Andrew Sullivan's takedown of his interview with Tim Russert wasn't evidence enough, this NYT article ought to dispell all doubt about the matter.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — For most of his presidency, George W. Bush has counted on a chorus of conservative newspaper columnists, radio hosts and television commentators to give powerful punctuation to his initiatives, proposals and defenses.

But in recent days, there has been an uptick in criticism of Mr. Bush from those quarters, underscoring strains between him and the Republican base that has so faithfully defended him in the past.

For example, Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter, had this to say on Sunday in opinionjournal.com about Mr. Bush's "Meet the Press" interview: "The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse."

George Will, the conservative columnist, wrote in his syndicated column on Sunday, "It is surreal for a Republican president to submit a budget to a Republican-controlled Congress and have Republican legislators vow to remove the `waste' that he has included and that they have hitherto funded."

While most conservatives remain squarely behind Mr. Bush, the united front has not been quite as united.

Columnists like Robert Novak, conservative television hosts like Joe Scarborough of MSNBC and others on local radio and the Internet have raised questions about Mr. Bush.

"It's a critical departure," said J. David Hoeveler, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who said last week that he believed that his local conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, had begun sounding less exuberant about Mr. Bush. "Generally it's been whole-heartedly Republican," Mr. Hoeveler said of the tenor of the conservative media. "It would suggest that those who would call themselves Republicans are quite possibly breaking ranks."

Bush campaign officials say the frustration stems from an eagerness among his supporters to take on the Democrats aggressively, which they say he will begin to do soon. And some columnists and commentators who have voiced criticism of the president insisted on Monday that they were not breaking ranks and that he remained their standard-bearer.

That line strikes me as being a mixture of spin and wishful thinking. The problem with Bush isn't so much that he's unwilling to "take on the Democrats aggressively", it's that he's violating most of the principles conservatism supposedly represents. Certainly, for the libertarian wing of the GOP, Bush has absolutely nothing to offer. But let's read on:

Many critiques go beyond politics. For instance, until recently Mr. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was as energetic a booster of Mr. Bush as anyone. He said he began speaking out against the Bush fiscal policy about two months ago, as he grew alarmed by the growing deficit and what he said were needlessly expensive proposals, like a manned Mars expedition and an increase in financing for the National Endowment of the Arts.

"When I first started doing it, I had Republicans calling me up and saying `Hey, why are you knocking a guy who's from your party?' " he said. "Two months later, everybody seems to be saying it. There's been no fiscal restraint and that's hurting the party and it's hurting the conservative cause."

In one column last week, Mr. Novak criticized Mr. Bush for giving "the most ineffective State of the Union address in recent years." And, he wrote, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the admission that the president's plan to expand Medicare would cost more than initially estimated were "a double blow to his credibility."

These criticisms get to the heart of the matter: a spending spree so reckless that many on the Right are now openly acknowledging the Clinton years as a golden era of fiscal restraint, coupled with a war advanced using arguments that have now been shown to have been manifestly untrue. I still think Saddam needed taking out, as he would have eventually gotten round to rebuilding his arsenal once all sanctions against his regime had been lifted, but that does not excuse the fact that the administration was willing to perpetuate falsehoods to achieve that objective. American credibility abroad has been seriously damaged by the failure to find any WMDs, and at this point, I'd say that anybody expecting some to be found is living in a dream world.

When Howard Dean was surging in the polls, I feared that I'd have no choice but to hold my nose and support Bush, whatever his failings on the domestic front, but now that Dean is effectively history, I think the Democratic Party once more presents a credible alternative. The old TINA (There Is No Alternative) rhetoric may work to keep the religious right on the reservation, but as a libertarian I have absolutely no reason at this point to prefer Bush to Kerry or Edwards; Bush is no free-trader, he seems not to understand the meaning of the term "spending restraint", and his social conservatism leaves me utterly cold. With a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, one can at least hope that deadlock will serve to keep the worst instincts of either side in check.