WASHINGTON – While Democrats have called President Bush the most conservative president in history, conservative support is starting to crack among those who say the president has not moved far enough to the right.
“There is a growing grumbling, a measure, if you will, of unhappiness with domestic policies,” said Free Republic Network (search) chairwoman Elizabeth Sheld. “It’s been building to the point where people are talking out, people are a little fidgety."
"[Bush] has been sacrificing the conservatives to get to the middle,” said Brandon Swalley, director of the Free Republic Network.
Sheld and Swalley are just two members of a nationwide organization of conservative activists, otherwise known as “freepers,” who discuss and debate policy merits on Freerepublic.com. They were also among hundreds of conservatives who attended last week's Conservative Political Action Conference (search) just outside Washington, D.C.'s borders.
Though the dissension has picked up in recent months, some conservatives say they still consider Bush a staunch defender of conservative values.
“I think there are some valid concerns that conservatives have,” said Steve Elliott, president of Grassfire.org (search), an Internet activist site founded, in part, to compete with the popularity of liberal Web site Moveon.org (search).
“But this president has been a supporter of conservative values and issues and has been a stalwart,” Elliott said.
“A lot of things are going right, and that’s when people start looking around and second guessing things. But at the end of the day, there is no fissure,” said Kimberly Morella, first vice president of the Westchester County Women’s Republican Club in New York.
Even as Sheld and Swalley complained about some of the president's recent actions, Sheld manned a booth in the CPAC exhibition hall that bore a poster featuring Bush’s face juxtaposed with a muscle-bound Uncle Sam.
Around the convention site, Bush campaign materials and memorabilia, including T-shirts, yard signs, bumper stickers and mouse pads, were in wide supply. Hundreds of young college and high school Republicans sported Bush-Cheney '04 stickers and gathered around tables displaying items hailing Bush as the man who is crushing terrorists in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Big name conservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie all spoke before enthusiastic audiences.
But the undercurrent at this year's three-day gathering took a distinctly different tone from previous years. In prior conferences, Bush's presidency was hailed as the welcome relief conservatives desperately needed following eight years of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The grassroots base that helped Bush to get elected has begun grumbling, both on the dais, in various panel discussions and in individual circles. The complaints are focused on the political direction the president is moving and the pull he has had on the Republican-led Congress.
“Our Republican Party is not conservative no matter what they say when they go home,” Don Devine, vice-chairman of the American Conservative Union (search), said of the attendees at the convention. “The fact is, [the administration is] not going in the right direction and we have to do something about it.”
Many of the activists who have worked hand-in-glove with the Bush administration say the agenda lacks the social and fiscal conservative principles they’ve been fighting to expand. Many complain that Bush has forsaken his base of support in order to make deals with Democrats.
They point to the numbers that show that Bush has overseen a growth in non-defense domestic discretionary spending of 8.2 percent over the last four years – an increase not matched since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (search) budget boom in the 1960s.
Fiscal conservatives are also stunned at the Republican leadership's role in helping to pass the 10-year, $400 billion Medicare bill, signed by the president late last year. Opponents say the bill is loaded with goodies for pharmaceutical and insurance industries and will put the country further into debt.
“I’m concerned about this strategy of buying off the opposition,” said National Right to Work Foundation (search) President Mark Mix, who spoke at a panel entitled “Fiscal Outrage: Stop the Spending!”
Conservatives are also concerned about the president's proposal, announced earlier this month, to grant citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants working in the United States, and say the expansion of government has taken a toll on efforts to protect privacy.
Conservatives who bend toward the libertarian aspects of democratic rule said they were rankled by the Patriot Act (search), particularly the broadened domestic surveillance powers, as well as increased scrutiny of airline passengers using personal information to run security checks on fliers.
“The conservative movement was about limiting the scope of government. We have not seen that in the first four years of the Bush administration,” said former Clinton administration FBI agent Gary Aldrich, who spoke with Devine on a panel called “GOP Success: Is it Hurting the Conservative Movement?”
Kay Daly, a conservative activist and talk radio host, said she has heard many of the complaints, and they have gotten louder over the last year.
But, she said she thinks Bush “has taken care of his base” through the recent recess appointment of Judge Charles Pickering (search) to the federal appeals bench, and the enactment of the partial birth abortion bill in 2003, for example.
However, Daly warned that Bush shouldn’t push conservatives by ignoring their concerns. “Bush has got to watch out ... or [conservatives] may stay home” on election night, she said.
Conservative activists insist that they are not flaks for the GOP, but a separate movement altogether, and one that is looking for kindred spirits in the White House and Congress.
“In my view,” said Aldrich, “we have four great years to get ready for 2008.”