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Revolt on the Right

Conservative activists are no longer a sure bet to play the role of good Republican footsoldier.

By 10.23.09

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When taxpayers and conservative activists began holding tea parties to protest an out-of-control federal government's unsustainable growth, it was not entirely unreasonable to ask: Where were these people for the last eight years?

George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress increased discretionary spending at twice the rate that prevailed under Bill Clinton. This dynamic duo produced a bloated transportation bill, an expensive energy bill, No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, and a witches' brew of legislation expanding the size and cost of the federal government. Federal outlays as a share of GDP increased from 18.4 percent to 20.9 percent.

In eight years, Washington went from running a $128 billion surplus to a $1.2 trillion deficit. Instead of recognizing that the major federal retirement programs were going broke, Bush and his supporters created a prescription drug benefit that increased Medicare's unfunded liabilities. It was the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were pushed off budget to prevent the country's fiscal picture from looking even gloomier. Bush left office having rammed through a bipartisan $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

Barack Obama came into office and promptly made most of these problems worse, staying on the road to bankruptcy but pushing the accelerator all the way down to the floor. The silence of too many Republicans -- and even conservatives -- in the face of GOP fiscal irresponsibility complicated the case against Obama's gargantuan spending plans. "Until conservatives once again hold Republicans to the same standard they hold Democrats," Bruce Bartlett complained earlier this year, "they will have no credibility and deserve no respect."

Ask and ye shall receive. Conservatives in general and the Tea Party movement are increasingly directing their fire at Republicans who govern like Democrats. The strongest sign yet has been in New York's 23rd congressional district, where local Republicans nominated a liberal who supports card check and same-sex marriage but won't forthrightly disavow either tax increases or a health care bill that funds abortion.

Dede Scozzafava won't even commit to how long she'll support House Minority Leader John Boehner for speaker. Faced with persistent questions from John McCormack, a conservative young reporter from the Weekly Standard, aimed at discerning her predilection for pulling an Arlen Specter, Scozzafava called the cops. Her press secretary later released an e-mail exchange with McCormack they thought would vindicate their position, only to find that even Daily Kos agrees with the Standard on this dust-up.

This prompted a virtual stampede of conservative bloggers and activists to come forward and demand that Scozzafava drop out of the race. It has sent an even bigger flood of conservatives, both within and outside the district, to support Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Scozzafava. A Sienna College poll found that 23 percent of the district's likely voters now intend to cast their ballots for Hoffman, a 7-point jump in two weeks, compared to 29 percent for Scozzafava and 33 percent for Democrat Bill Owens.

Normally, the argument that voting for a third-party candidate on the right is morally equivalent to voting for a Democrat keeps many a disenchanted conservative in the GOP fold. There is a chance that the split between Hoffman and Scozzafava will lead to a Democrat representing New York's 23rd District for the first time since 1872. "GOP squabbling jeopardizes N.Y. Seat," crowed the headline writers at the Washington Post.

Yet this time many conservatives are asking: Do we not in effect get a legislator liberal enough to be a Democrat even if Scozzafava wins? Aren't their higher principles at stake in this election than (maybe) securing a vote for Boehner for speaker? If enough conservatives think these questions through, New York just might see a repeat of James Buckley's surprise 1970 victory over a Republican and a Democrat on the Conservative Party line.

Dick Armey traveled to New York to campaign for Hoffman and against the GOP nominee. As House majority leader, he occasionally voted for Bush policies that he personally opposed -- he has since named No Child Left Behind and the Iraq war as the two biggest examples -- but has since decided that sometimes party loyalty asks too much. "We've struggled with a Republican party ... that has lost its way," he said in the Empire State. "They don't remember about Reagan ... they don't remember about small government. They let their thinking be controlled by self-serving political objects. And frankly, they made a lot of fools out of themselves."

Republicans who voted for the bailout routinely find themselves booed when they try to speak at Tea Party events. The eight House Republicans who broke with their party and voted for a climate change bill including a costly cap-and-trade scheme, they were denounced by the grassroots as "cap and traitors." When the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Washington GOP power brokers pull out all the stops for moderate primary candidates -- including two of the cap and traitors -- conservative activists pledge not to pull out their wallets.

One former Bush speechwriter claims that while reviewing the draft of a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president said, "Let me tell you something. I whupped Gary Bauer's ass in 2000. So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement." Even if the story is apocryphal, it does do a good job of capturing much of the conservative movement's relationship with the Bush-era GOP.

Conservatives may finally be in the mood to return the favor by giving errant Republicans a whupping of their own.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.