Conservatives criticize Bush's spending, anti-terrorism law

Conference attendees complain that GOP backs big government

January 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ARLINGTON, Va. - To many people, President Bush - tax-cutter, born-again Christian, invader of Iraq - is the face of American conservatism. But here at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, many of the assembled are questioning whether he is conservative enough.

Conservatives complain about the administration's spending on Medicare and education and its proposed spending on space exploration, its expansion of law enforcement powers to fight terrorism and its proposed guest-worker program for immigrants.

To underscore the discontent, the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference, held a dinner in honor of Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted against the president's Medicare bill. The conference called them fiscal heroes.

The topic of one panel discussion was "GOP Success: Is It Destroying the Conservative Movement?" and another debated whether the administration's anti-terrorism efforts were endangering individuals' rights to privacy and freedom. The keynote address was delivered by a conservative Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, in part to make sure the administration did not take conservatives for granted, said David A. Keene, chairman of the union.

"There are troubling signs that the ship of conservative governance is off-course," Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, said in the opening address.

Too many "big-government Republicans" have come to see government as a solution instead of the problem itself, Pence said.

"One more compromise of who we are as limited-government conservatives and our majority could be gone as well," he said, adding, "It is time for conservatives to right the ship."

No one here is likely to pull a Democratic lever in a presidential election any time soon, and red-white-and-blue "W" pins, as in George W. Bush, remain the fashion accessory of choice. But conservative activists argue that the polarization of politics means the president needs their enthusiastic support more than ever: With fewer voters left up for grabs in the middle, turning out as much of the party's base as possible is becoming especially crucial.

"For an ideologically driven political activist, these are the best of times," Keene said.

Many conservatives attribute the 1992 electoral defeat of the first President George Bush to disillusionment at the conservative grass roots over his failure to understand the movement and his willingness to raise taxes.

"Bush Sr. jumped over the line, and we had to whack him," said Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a strategist of the conservative movement.

But the Conservative Political Action Conference has also been a significant component of the party's ascent in national politics. For 31 years, the conference has been where the Republican big tent is assembled, convening disparate groups such as evangelical advocates, gun enthusiasts, anti-tax groups, anti-labor groups, pro-business groups and libertarians.

It has also been a venue for enlisting young recruits. More than two-thirds of the roughly 4,000 attendees are college students, who pay $20 each to attend.

But with both houses of Congress and the White House in Republican hands, and with the Democrats still trying to select an opponent to face President Bush in November, many conservatives are left with nowhere to direct their criticism but at less-conservative Republicans, known here as "RINOs," for Republican in Name Only.

For the Bush administration, which has maintained close ties to the movement, the conference is an opportunity to send a customized message to die-hard conservatives without alienating moderates in the party. The White House sent a variety of officials, including Elaine L. Chao, the labor secretary; Ken Mehlman, manager of the president's re-election campaign; and Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In a speech Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered what amounted to a State of the Union message refracted to the right. He thanked the audience for "its commitment to the cause we all share" of holding accountable foreign nations that harbor terrorists. He emphasized the administration's stance against abortion, calling the president's signature on the bill banning so-called partial-birth abortions a "milestone."

He upbraided Democratic senators for blocking the president's judicial nominees, and he praised the president's appointment of a conservative judge, Charles W. Pickering Sr., while the Senate was in recess.

None of those sentiments, which drew sustained applause here, made it into the president's State of the Union message on Tuesday.

Cheney drew a less enthusiastic response when he called on Congress to extend the anti-terrorism law, the USA Patriot Act, which will expire next year. Many conservatives fear that the act and other administration moves give the federal government too much power. In recognition of a new alliance on the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union set up a booth at the conference this year for the first time, Keene of the conservative union said.

Cheney took the podium shortly after Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, vowed that extending the act before reviewing its results by 2005 would happen "over my dead body."

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