Politics & Policy

On The Trail

And considering the stakes.

President Bush spent Tuesday in southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. It was an all blue-state day. It has often been said that Bush is campaigning only in Republican strongholds, trying to appeal to the base rather than to swing voters. It is hard to make that case about Tuesday. Bush didn’t do well last time in the region, which is why he lost both states. Republicans in the area have long thought he had room for improvement here. Hence his stops today in Onalaska, Richland Center, and Cuba City, in Wisconsin, and in Dubuque, Iowa. For those of you keeping score at home, Wisconsin has 10 electoral votes and Iowa 7. If Bush wins both, he can lose Ohio and New Hampshire and still win the election.

Bush is going to both of those last two states later in the week. In Ohio, he’ll visit Democratic Youngstown. He’s also going to Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. The amount of time he’s spending in these places doesn’t seem like some kind of Rovian attempt to boost Republicans’ confidence elsewhere, or fake out Kerry, like the trip to California during the last part of the 2000 campaign. Whether these trips reflect wishful thinking is another question.

On Tuesday, Bush gave the standard stump speech for the most part–although in Richland Center, the focus was more on a “conversation” about the economy with selected small-business owners. His speeches were news-free events. They contained very little new. And they did not reflect the news swirling around the campaign, about possibly missing weapons in Iraq and civil-unions controversy at home.

Having written about the president’s stump speech yesterday, I figured that this time I would make a few observations–okay, random observations.

LAME JOKES

In Iowa over the last two days, Bush has started off his speeches with two of the worst jokes I’ve ever heard him make. He says that Jim Nussle, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is “watching your money like a hawk. . . eye.” He then talks about Senator Chuck Grassley. “I saw him the other day and I said, say, Chuck, you know, the South Lawn has got a lot of grass–and we’re looking for somebody to give us a hand.” I have the sneaking suspicion that the president came up with these lines himself.

LAME SIGNS

On the way to the Onalaska event, a woman held a sign saying, “Another Unitarian for Kerry.” Well, yeah.

TAX RELIEF

Bush has always used both demand-side and supply-side arguments to justify his tax cuts. Tuesday morning, he said that his tax cuts had stimulated both consumption and saving. Come again? They encouraged people to spend rather than save, and to save rather than spend, at the same time?

SPENDING, SPENDING, SPENDING

Bush’s stump speech claims that Kerry is promising $2.2 trillion of spending, which will require him to raise taxes. It includes no promise of spending restraint from Bush himself, nor even the pledge he has made in the past to cut the deficit in half. It also does not include much new spending. (I’m not following the obtuse MSM practice of overestimating the transition costs for Social Security reform, and then counting it as spending. More on that later in the week.) Bush does talk about expanding community colleges.

Spending makes up the bulk of what I’ve taken to calling “the dumb conservative case against Bush.” (Which is not to deny that there are respectable conservative cases against Bush, too, although I myself reject them.) The dumb case against Bush regards him as having betrayed the historic Republican commitment to keep spending down from year to year. This history stretches all the way back to January 1995, and all the way forward until the fall of 1996. But the dumb case against Bush doesn’t pause to acknowledge that Reagan increased spending, too, especially in a first term of recession and defense build-up, or that the Gingrich Congress cut a big-spending budget deal with Clinton in 1997. The case, in its dumbest form, assumes that anti-spenders can, by denying Bush reelection, cause Republicans to return to the true path. Maybe this would even make sense–if it were not the case that much of the country likes increased federal spending just fine, and far more people like than dislike increased spending for any given program. That’s why spending has gone up, after all, and not just under this president.

Small-government conservatives need a long-term strategy to achieve their goals–and by “strategy,” I do not mean pretending to have more clout than we do. Such a strategy might involve, say, Social Security reform, budget-process reform, and other things that the president has endorsed. And while Kerry-Frist gridlock might very well cause spending in 2006 to be lower than it otherwise would be, it also would block that long-term agenda.

1964

George W. Bush is the second-most conservative president of the last six decades. You may think that conservatism has gone astray in recent years, but it is hard to deny that any president besides Reagan has been as closely allied with organized conservatism. (I am not, in other words, making a claim about what the proper definition of “conservatism” should be, just about what it is.) It follows that, in a certain sense, Bush’s defeat next Tuesday would be the most crushing blow that organized conservatism has received since 1964–or, really, ever. Reagan, our most conservative president, was not repudiated when he ran for reelection. Bush’s father and Bob Dole had too distant a relationship with conservatism for their defeats to be attributed, by conservatives or even plausibly by others, to their conservatism; in the case of Bush’s father, it was easy to make the case that it was precisely his unconservatism that doomed him.

The only conservative-movement presidential candidate who has been rejected by the national electorate is Barry Goldwater. But his nomination was so great a victory for conservatives that his general-election defeat did not hurt in the long run. And of course to unseat a president is more of a rejection than to defeat a challenger. Now, as I said, if you think conservatism has lost its way–because of spending, or social issues, or the war, or whatever–you may conclude that it needs an electoral rebuke. But it’s hard to deny that it would be a harsh one.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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