Alternative History

Reading Michael Gerson's attack on conservatives fleeing Bushism, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Bush had followed through on his 2000 promises to be "a different kind of conservative" on the issues he championed in the campaign - education, prescription drugs, and faith-based initiatives - but had then toed a much firmer small-government line on (to pick a few examples) the transportation bill, the energy bill, and McCain-Feingold, wielding a veto pen instead of either standing aside or actively working to push pork-laden legislation through. Put another way, I wonder if small-government conservatives would be so angry at Bush today if he had deviated from their orthodoxy on a narrow but important group of issues, but had found more opportunities to present himself as responsive to their concerns, instead of stiff-arming them even on issues like campaign-finance reform that had little to do with either winning elections or advancing his "different kind of conservative" agenda. I suspect that immigration "reform" would have still been a deal-breaker for a lot of a right-wingers, but it's an interesting hypothetical to contemplate, and I bet a few (richly-merited) vetoes would have gone a long way toward moderating the conservative antipathy to this Administration that's built up over the past few years.

A lesson of Bush's souring relationship with many small-government conservatives, I think, is that it's one thing to ask people to compromise some of their principles to build a winning coalition; it's quite another to simply dismiss a large chunk of your political base by saying, as Gerson does in his column, that being "a different kind of Republican" means being "the kind that isn't libertarian or nativist," full stop, end of story. Libertarians and "nativists" (love that derogatory language!) may have had too much influence in the 1990s GOP, and I'm obviously closer to Gerson in my wariness about giving the small-government right the reins to the party going forward. But there wouldn't be a conservative movement or a Republican coalition without these groups, and while it's one thing for a politician who wants to take his party in a new direction to take on some Sister Souljahs along the way, it's quite another to make almost every domestic-policy moment feel like a Sister Souljah moment.