I think Will (and certainly Derb) is too harsh about Bush and his conservatism. It is certainly true that recent Supreme Court decisions and the darkening picture of hemorraging federal spending should leave the conservative forces a bit glum. We do not “dominate” Washington the way Joe Conason and David Brock would have people believe. Republican control of Congress is a slender reed, not a mighty sword. And everything the Bush team does is guided by a keen sense of how it will be played through the prisms and funhouse mirrors of the national media.
On the question of geopolitical conservatism, Bush may not be an isolationist in the Old Right tradition, but there is very little of a visible or audible conservative opposition to Middle East military action. Bush does not expect to lose thousands of votes on the right by making war on potential terrorist havens and hideouts.
There is more potential defection from Bush in the area of fiscal conservatism, where the early promises of limiting discretionary spending to four percent growth sound as old as ragtime music by now. The media’s steady devotion to complete misrepresentation of any spending cuts or “government shutdowns” during the last presidency have taught the current team to be as strategically timid in the budget battles as they are strategically bold on the other side of the world. Their plan to favor tax cuts and concede to dramatic spending growth on potential Democratic traction areas (education, Medicare) do threaten to make them look like deficit-builders and could demoralize the econo-cons who hoped for more ambitious reforms.
As for constitutionalists and social conservatives, the only bones they’ve been thrown are a set of judicial nominations that have yet to yield a single obvious nomination disappointment. Confirmation is a bigger trouble. But the Bush presidency has been largely a rhetorical vacuum on abortion, and downright bound and gagged on gay politics. (Nod to liberal media hot buttons here once again).Will is right that a Supreme Court nomination would be a test he cannot finesse. His stated admiration for strict constructionists like Scalia and Thomas will require a nominee of their distinction and philosophy. Anything less begins the echo of Poppy, who lasted one term with the Inaugural idea that “we didn’t come here to bicker.” We’re here to bicker, and badger, and persuade. We need our leader to show confidence in the popularity of conservatism when it matters most.