During the 2008 CPAC convention, George Bush only mentioned the word “conservative” once, in the closing — and apparently that was no accident. A new book by the man who wrote the speech for Bush, staffer Matt Latimer, retells the story in Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor, and Byron York relates it in today’s Washington Examiner. When Latimer tried to include supportive language about the conservative movement, Bush attempted to set his speechwriter straight:
“What is this movement you keep talking about in the speech?” the president asked Latimer.
Latimer explained that he meant the conservative movement — the movement that gave rise to groups like CPAC.
Bush seemed perplexed. Latimer elaborated a bit more. Then Bush leaned forward, with a point to make.
“Let me tell you something,” the president said. “I whupped Gary Bauer’s ass in 2000. So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement.”
Bush seemed to equate the conservative movement — the astonishing growth of conservative political strength that took place in the decades after Barry Goldwater’s disastrous defeat in 1964 — with the fortunes of Bauer, the evangelical Christian activist and former head of the Family Research Council whose 2000 presidential campaign went nowhere.
Now it was Latimer who looked perplexed. Bush tried to explain.
“Look, I know this probably sounds arrogant to say,” the president said, “but I redefined the Republican Party.”
I don’t think there’s any doubt about that last statement. Before Bush’s election, the Republican majorities in Congress had worked themselves into a role of fiscal responsibility and a check on Bill Clinton’s more expansive notions of government. After Bush took office, however, the two branches of government went on a spending spree, and not coincidentally a lobbyist lovefest, that threw out the GOP’s credibility on fiscal responsibility in six short years. Bush and his big-spending policies (and K Street strategy) set the stage for the Democrats to seize control of Congress in the 2006 midterms and a Democratic takeover of the White House last year.
Many of us admired Bush for his stalwart policies on national security and the war. But starting in 2002, we began to figure out that Bush was no conservative on domestic policy, but instead at best a centrist, and probably more of a Rockefeller Republican, with one big exception: abortion. It started with his partnership with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind, especially when he threw away school vouchers to keep Kennedy on board, and again with Medicare Part D, a brand new entitlement on an already sinking program.
However, Bush had never been considered a movement conservative before running for President. His father hardly had given any credibility to that claim in his single term in office, and George W Bush’s tenure as governor in Texas revealed him as a centrist accommodator, a man who worked across the aisle to get things done. That reputation was one of the reasons Bush had to choose Dick Cheney as his running mate — in order to get movement conservatives enthused about the ticket against Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.
So, when he said he redefined Republicans, that’s not just arrogance; it’s the truth, and we’re still paying for it. But Bush was wrong when he rejected the notion of a conservative movement, and very wrong when he calculated that Gary Bauer was the leader of it. The conservative movement had to bide its time during the spending spree of the Bush administration, and has been vindicated by the spending insanity of the Democrats afterward. It will outlive the Bushism that alienated people from Republicans as long as the GOP learns its lesson about the long-term commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Update: Well, if those quotes didn’t endear Bush to the Right, these about Sarah Palin will offer even more offense:
“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”
Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When Ed told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, “Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.” He thought about it for a minute. “She’s interesting,” he said again. “You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.” Then he made a very smart assessment.
“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.”
On the other hand, conservatives might agree with Bush about John McCain:
I was once in the Oval Office when the president was told a campaign event in Phoenix he was to attend with McCain suddenly had to be closed to the press…
“If he doesn’t want me to go, fine,” the president said. “I’ve got better things to do.”
Eventually, someone informed the president that the reason the event was closed was that McCain was having trouble getting a crowd. Bush was incredulous—and to the point. “He can’t get 500 people to show up for an event in his hometown?” he asked. No one said anything, and we went on to another topic. But the president couldn’t let the matter drop. “He couldn’t get 500 people? I could get that many people to turn out in Crawford.” He shook his head. “This is a five-spiral crash, boys.”