Conservatives Chalk Up Win Streak, But Still No Reason to Cheer

Conservatives and Democrats are both happy with the latest string of political and legislative moves out of Washington, D.C, but the news poses new difficulties for the 2008 Republican presidential candidates.

"There's nothing in the evidence we see, thus far, that bodes well for the Republican Party in 2008. The climate is still very discouraging for Republicans," said Thomas Mann, a fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.

Listless conservatives have regained some of their fight of late since the failure of the immigration bill, the commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, a recent House vote protecting talk radio and a few late-session Supreme Court decisions. It could even give the Republican base a needed second wind ahead of the 2008 presidential season, said one conservative thinker.

"I think it shows the strength of the conservative movement," said Brian Darling, a scholar at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. "The conservative movement is vibrant and will ... survive past this current administration."

For sure, the news for conservatives has been bleak for a long while. Last November, voters upset by a lack of progress in the Iraq war and charges of political corruption overturned the Republican-led Congress, the first majority-switch in the House in 12 years. President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low and the prospects of a Republican in the White House in 2009 — let alone a conservative one — are in serious jeopardy.

Though disheartened, conservatives have refused to roll over. They forcefully objected to Congress passing immigration reforms that opponents on the right called an amnesty bill for illegal aliens. The legislation went down to lackluster defeat in the Senate before the July 4th recess.

Around the same time, conservatives expressed fears that Democrats would try to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, a long-defunct Federal Communications Commission requirement that would force balance among opinions expressed in programming on the radio waves, a traditional haven for conservative thought. Before going on its holiday break, the House approved an amendment by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., to a federal agencies budget to prevent the return of the Fairness Doctrine. The Senate takes up the spending bill next week.

Conservatives also took solace in the pay-off from the Supreme Court's rightward shift. Among its rulings this session, the court — with new Bush appointees Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito — upheld the Congress's 2003 ban on partial birth abortions, struck a key provision of the detested 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law and ruled that public school districts cannot use race to decide school admissions.

While abhorrent to Democrats, the Libby commutation is only a partial win for the staunchest conservatives who have called for a full pardon. Conservatives say Libby's conviction on perjury and obstruction is a miscarriage of justice since no underlying crime was committed in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. The original leaker, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was never charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

While conservatives sigh some relief, their spate of victories could be just as powerful a weapon in the hands of liberal Democrats, say analysts, with swing voters disgusted by what they call a Republican block to needed immigration reform, a "contemptible" decision to protect a former White House aide and irresponsible fear-mongering on the airwaves.

"The news for the most part — especially immigration and the Libby pardon — bodes well for the Democrats in 2008," Mann said.

The Libby commutation, while making conservatives happy, won't last long in the public eye, he said. In addition, when it comes to immigration, Democrats — although in control of Congress — should easily be able to fault Republicans with the defeat and strengthen the Democratic position among sought-after Hispanic voters.

"Certainly, the conservative position of the Republican Party was victorious, but so too was the populist, left position in the Democratic Party who joined with them on this," Mann said.

But Darling, who has worked on the staffs of several Republican senators, said he believes the recent wins could mean an opening for more conservative issues to come to the forefront, making room for Republican candidates to appeal to voters before the next administration takes office.

Those issues include the revival of the shelved plans for health savings accounts, tax simplification — maybe even the flat tax — and beefing up border security and existing immigration laws.

"I think Bush has the opportunity to use the bully pulpit to talk about conservatism and to set the table for the next administration," Darling said.

On the other hand, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, it's a bad sign for the president and Republican Party that some conservatives are still complaining that Bush didn't go far enough on the Libby commutation.

"That tells you something," Sabato said. "If a president is weak, they [the political base] find a reason to be unhappy, when if at any other time, if things were going better, they would find a reason to be happy."

Byron York of The National Review agreed that the recent victories not only are not a trend, but highlight rifts among Republicans.

"Some of these are victories of conservatives over Republicans. ... The kind of people that were unhappy with Bush over immigration are going to like his taking action on the Libby case," York said.

York said that with the Libby decision, Bush likely was riding the fine line that all politicians reach on a regular bases: threading what they believe is right with what their political base wants. Bush struck the mark closest to satisfying the calls for a full pardon and those calling for something less.

"I don't think it's an infusion of political capital, but I think it helps the White House a little bit with a group that was pretty angry with the White House over immigration," York said. "It's like getting out of debt, but it doesn't mean you should go out spending money."

Add to that more Republican legislative and White House policy defeats this congressional term and the attendant drop in poll numbers for the president, and "the greater the Democratic opportunity for substantial victory in 2008," Mann said.

Sabato suggested the Bush administration should use its time now to push harder on filling federal judgeships because "if they don't get nominees out there in the next few months," it's over.

In addition, the war in Iraq is the next major issue Congress will take on, and may be the last major issue if it can't come to agreement on an energy package, observers say. The recent conservative victories don't appear to have any bearing on how that the Iraq debate will turn out.

"There's a lot of disaffection and unhappiness" among conservatives due to the Iraq war, Sabato said.

While the White House has been hinting that September might be too soon to see if the president's surge strategy has been effective, Congress has been setting its clock for a debate along that timeframe and the outlook isn't pretty.

"Support on the Republican side of the aisle [for the Iraq war] is on the verge of collapse, so this will be the issue that I think dominates now moving into the fall," Mann said.

"I think that it's a time that you'll probably see a grinding Republican disunity," York added.