Political Hay

Playing Ball With the Base

The Republican candidates have to understand who the real stars are this election cycle.

By 3.16.07

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The 1991 Bush tax increase and Harriet Miers.

If you really want to understand the importance of the conservative base of the Republican Party, and more importantly understand why conservatives are pausing carefully over the choice of their prospective 2008 presidential nominee, look no further then the firestorms surrounding the 1991 Bush tax hike and Ms. Miers.

Often overlooked in conservative lore is the importance of the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. The field included Ronald Reagan's Vice President, George H.W. Bush. His main antagonists were then-Senator Bob Dole, Congressman Jack Kemp, former Delaware Governor Pete DuPont, and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. After the usual tussle, Bush won, presenting himself successfully to voters as Reagan's heir. He went on to win a considerable victory over liberal Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

Almost immediately the Bush presidency began to go off the rails.

Why? The suspicions conservatives had long held of Reagan's vice president were that Ronald Reagan's loyal vice president or not, Bush was in reality a card-carrying member of the Eastern liberal Republican establishment. While he could talk a good game, if and when push came to shove the gentlemanly Bush was either too philosophically rudderless, stylistically disdainful, or far too eager to go-along-to-get-along with liberalism, or all of the above. He would, so went the concern, sell conservatism short once seated in the Oval Office on his own.

This was, of course, exactly what began to happen even before Bush was inaugurated. Stories flew in conservative circles that the new president-elect, participating in the last Reagan-Gorbachev summit on Governor's Island in New York harbor, had confided in Gorbachev that he considered some of Reagan's conservative team to be "thugs."

WHILE IT WAS PERFECTLY NORMAL for a new president to want his own team staffing his administration, there seemed to be a deliberate blind spot that confused the conservative base with Reaganites, not understanding that the latter were in fact also the former. "This is the Bush administration, not the Reagan administration," huffed one senior Bush aide to a reporter, unable to grasp that Bush had been elected, as had Reagan, on a conservative platform. A visiting Reaganite being guided down the halls of the Old Executive Office Building was advised quietly that the Reagan tie clasp he was wearing was forbidden among the new crowd.

Inevitably, the political ship of state hit the iceberg. It came in the form of the now-infamous breaking of the Bush pledge that he would never sign on to a tax increase. Egged on by his team of non-conservatives headed by then-Treasury Deputy Secretary Richard Darman, Bush broke his famous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. His conservative support melted and the rest, as they say, was history. Very instructive history. The President's 90% favorability ratings after the Gulf War vanished. Then came the Pat Buchanan primary challenge, followed by the Perot candidacy and finally, almost inevitably, the dawning of the Clinton era.

By 2000, as fate would have it, Bush's eldest son set out to be the conservative champion, vividly aware of where his father went astray. Karl Rove made it a point to cement the then-Texas Governor's relations with conservatives. Yet even so, when the moment came to fill an all-important Supreme Court vacancy, Bush ignored dozens of highly credentialed men, women and minorities in the conservative movement to select the philosophically challenged Harriet Miers.

Exactly as occurred with his father, rebellion in the conservative ranks ignited. The difference, of course, is that this Bush White House, however grudgingly, understood its mistake. Miers was pulled and replaced with conservative favorite Sam Alito.

SO WHAT DOES ANY of this history, recent and ancient, have to do with the 2008 presidential nomination? Everything.

There is a reason the pro-life John McCain came in a dismal fifth in the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll. There is a reason Rudy Giuliani came in second, that the thunderous cheers were reserved for non-candidate conservative hero Newt Gingrich, and that Romney opponents were handing out flip-flop sandals to symbolize the ex-Massachusetts governor.

Each in their own way, McCain, Giuliani and Romney are viewed as capable, either deliberately and with malice, or by accident out of insufficient dedication to principle, of turning on conservatives. How? By raising taxes or putting liberals and suspected pro-choicers on the bench -- the mistakes of the Bushes father and son. And if and when that happens, as with the 1991 tax hike and the nomination of Miers, conservatives will turn on the new president in a heartbeat.

In the middle of what all sides agree is a dangerous national security threat that goes to the very heart of the country's safety.

Yet no one with any experience in the conservative movement believes conservatives will simply roll over while a President McCain raises taxes or if a President Giuliani appoints pro-choice judges to the bench or a President Romney tries to appease liberals on policy as he did by denying Ronald Reagan in his Senate race against Ted Kennedy.

Conservatives are in fact not simply the base of the modern Reaganized Republican Party, they are its heart and soul. The real stars at the CPAC meeting were not candidates Romney, Giuliani, Brownback, Gingrich, McCain, Gilmore, Huckabee, Hunter or Cox. The real stars were the stunning crowd of over 6,000 rank-and-file conservative attendees. How the candidates play ball with the conservative base that was represented by all those activists will be not simply the key to the nomination -- it will be the key to success in the White House.

Or failure. And if you don't believe that, you can go read up on the second term of the first President Bush when you aren't reading the latest Supreme Court opinion from Justice Harriet Miers.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.