Okay, to continue the thoughts on Rove's speech from this blog post earlier (which itself continued this one), here's the only way I can think of that Rove and Company can stop conservative support from hemorrhaging in response to the outrageous federal spending (which, by the way, I failed to note earlier, has also been greatly worsened by the outlandishly expensive prescription drug bill for Medicare):
First, rather than selectively (and misleadingly) using cherry-picked but meaningless statistics to try to pretend that Bush actually has been an effective budget disciplinarian, try a little candor instead, and an apology. Conservatives can forgive eight-plus straight years of over-spending (yes, it pre-dates Bush, because the GOP Congress has been horrible at this since the fall of 1998) a little more easily if they sense that the White House, first, recognizes the problem and the legitimacy of conservative complaints and, second, can believably claim to be making a NEWfound commitment to fiscal sense rather than trying (without any believability) to be merely continuing what the White House claims is already a successful record of keeping spending in check. (It's worth noting that even Fred Barnes, whose recent book on the Bush presidency is overwhelmingly positive, notes in the book and in several columns that Bush just flat-out is not a "small government" conservative and that he can make no real claim to fiscal discipline.)
Second, make a strong case that no more foolishness will be tolerated. Rove could/should try something like this:
"You know what? You're right: Overall spending and the deficits have not been kept within the bounds that we would have liked. And it's not all war-related. Congressional earmarks and budget gimmicks are out of control. And while we have insisted, successfully, that the growth rate of official measures for non-security discretionary spending has declined each year, the fact is that the overall size of government, even excluding the military, has grown too much. It's a problem that long pre-dated this administration, but it's one we have not fixed. The American people see thousands of local pork earmarks and they see the overall budget growing rapidly, and they have a right to be concerned. And, frankly, this administration has had to choose its fights; and while we are engaged in an important war against terrorists and opposed for political reasons by the other party no matter what we do, we have not chosen to fight Congress too hard on the spending front because we need to keep everybody, and especially every Republican (since the Democrats are so obstructionist regardless) on board for the bigger, more important battle against terrorists. Now we will argue forever that the spending outlook isn't anywhere near as bad as our critics would assert -- for instance, federal spending as a percentage of the overall economy is lower than it was under four of the last five presidents -- but that doesn't mean we don't recognize that the record could and should be better, and that our fiscal-conservative allies have a point. THEREFORE, we are making a commitment to do better than we so far have done, to hold Congress' feet to the fire, to use the presidential veto if need be, in order to make a so-so record on spending discipline into a superb record in the next three years.
"In short, WE HEAR YOUR COMPLAINTS, and we will respond constructively to satisfy them."
There: That's far from perfect, but something like that.
Ronald Reagan proved that a leader can prosper by admitting mistakes and believably pledging to do better. George W. Bush has done enough right, by conservative lights, on other fronts, that if he and his team show they accept conservative criticisms on this front as legitimate and worth ameliorating, conservatives might (and should) cut him some slack. To claim a bad record is good is to stick a needle in conservatives' eyes (because it belittles our concerns); but to acknowledge a so-so/mediocre record and promising to do better is to show both humility and magnaminity that can help a team (the nationwide team of conservatives, as it were) come together again in common cause.
Now, as for what Bush has done right by conservative lights, Rove hit those points quite well at AEI, and that will be the subject of my next blog entry.
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