Why All the Smiles on the Right?

A happy conservative? Sounds like an oxymoron. If so, a whole convention of oxymorons met in Washington last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was billed as "the nation's largest annual gathering of conservatives." They were over the moon about George W. Bush.

It is easy to understand why conservatives rallied to Bush during the primaries. He saved them from John McCain. It is also clear why they gave Bush no trouble during and after the GOP convention. He saved them from Al Gore. Now that Bush is President, however, you'd think conservatives would be getting nervous. All this talk about bipartisanship and civility.

"America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility," Bush said in his inaugural address. "A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect."

Some conservatives are not buying it—such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who last week, in one of his rare public appearances, said, in essence: to hell with that.

"The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society," Thomas said at a dinner of the American Enterprise Institute. "That is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership."

Is that typical of how conservatives feel? Actually, no. Most conservatives understand what Bush is doing. And they like it. What, exactly, is Bush doing? He's disarming the opposition. He's saying to conservatives: "I endorse your positions. But I embrace your adversaries." Bush did both at his Jan. 24 meeting with the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress. Here's Bush, endorsing conservative positions: "I don't believe [Vice President Dick Cheney] and I would be sitting here had we not taken strong positions on key issues. I told the American people, if I had the honor of being President, I would submit those positions I was campaigning on to the legislative branch. And that's exactly what I've done."

And here's Bush at the same meeting, embracing his adversaries: "I think it's important for me to explain my position. It's also important for me to hear others' positions. It's important for me to understand where there's resistance, and why. But it all happens with good, honest discussion, a frank discussion about positions."

Cheney, who was on hand for the Thomas speech, told the C-PAC audience two nights later: "The days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over. This President and this Administration are going to change the tone in the city of Washington." Conservatives have no problem with that. "Bush is comfortable enough with himself that he can go and sit down with people who disagree with him," C-PAC's chairman, David Keene, said. As long as Bush sticks to his principles.

And that, Keene noted, is exactly what conservatives believe Bush has done. "If you look back at the 2000 campaign," Keene observed, "one of the remarkable things is that George Bush ended the campaign on the very same themes and most of the specifics on which he began it."

Amazing—a Republican President who isn't betraying his conservative supporters. Keene said: "The first thing he does is go to the Hill and say, 'I'm sticking to my campaign promises.' Conservatives not only found that admirable, they were rocked back on their heels a bit. Because ideologues like us always expect that whoever gets elected is going to turn their back on them. He hasn't done that."

What about the President's indication that he might be willing to compromise on school vouchers? No problem. "Bush has not abandoned the central concept of competition in education," Keene said. "If he wants to use a different word to get to the same place, I don't think there's a conservative in the country who's going to worry about that."

There's the appointment of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, of course. And Bush's restoration of the ban on funds for international family-planning services that support abortion. But there's also the fact that Bush is surrounded by Washington deal-makers, such as Cheney and Andrew H. Card Jr. and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul H. O'Neill. Is that a sign of encroaching pragmatism? Yes. And, so what? "Ronald Reagan compromised all the time," Keene noted. "That's the nature of politics."

Are conservatives saying Bush is another Reagan? Not exactly. But close. "He's not Reagan," Keene said. "Reagan had the advantage, not only of the oratorical skills, but also of the philosophical grounding, having come up through the conservative movement. But Bush is more in the Reagan school than in his father's school, which is very interesting." In other words, conservatives see President Bush as more of a Reagan conservative—a man of principle—than a Bush conservative, a sellout. Very interesting, indeed.

But where, exactly, do conservatives draw the line? Keene told this story: "When President-elect Bush first came to Washington, a conservative Senator presented him with a gift—a framed picture of Justice David Souter. The Senator said, 'I'd like you to put that on your wall, and when you think about the Supreme Court, I'd like you to look at it.' " Keene added, "If President Bush looks at that picture and doesn't nominate another David Souter to the Court, conservatives will be happy." Maybe even Clarence Thomas.