What should grass-roots conservatives do
as the Bush administration strays from fundamentals?

by Richard Falknor
From slowing voluntary smallpox vaccinations to the massive Federalizing of education, from the campaign finance act's gross infringements on traditional liberties to the airline-security debacle, activists I talk to see the Bush Administration becoming a mindless engine of 'governmentalism'. Steel tariffs, substantial farm subsidies, and the failure to veto exuberant pork simply compound the offense.

Many grass-roots conservatives writhe as the Administration walks away from some good beginnings in free markets and consumer choice, right-sizing government, economic growth, and accountability in the intelligence community.

These activists and some heroic allies from the Clinton stonewalling wonder at the hostility to open government, and the failure to mute holdover or "career" voices opposed to stated Presidential policies.

Most immediately, they ask when the president plans to use the "bully pulpit" effectively to reassure the new "investor class." Today that group constitutes a substantial number of those who vote.

On the other hand, against all hope and too many in the Administration, the Defense Department has persevered in doing the right thing much of the time. The Rumsfeld team has set in motion a coherent military alliance against the Islamists. They are making missile defense a reality. They are telling the truth openly about the China danger.

No other likely president of either party would give the Rumsfeld team the scope it has, and the consequent protection to the American people.

Yet in the halls of the Bush Administration, conservatives may offer advice on domestic policy; they may even have formal audiences, but they fear they are not heeded.

Many center-to-right activists speculate on why "governmentalism" has so beguiled the administration. They ask - - -

Are those who share the approach of the President's father really running the show at home because of the war? Have the President's political advisers concluded that rubber-stamping big-government legislation is the key to preserving the President's approval ratings - - - and the devil take the House leadership? Do these aides argue that there exists a large active voting "center" eager to support the President if he just doesn't "bicker" with the left in the Senate and elsewhere? Most troubling, what if these questionable White House decisions come from President Bush himself?

We don't know, and there may only be an evolving pattern of presidential decision-making. Good historians understand that truth is often the enemy of logic, that the implausible, not the "likely" is frequently what men and women actually do in time and space.

What we do know is that this administration also evinces a fear of open government. This will probably hurt its natural allies more than confound its enemies. (Older heads point out that this fear together with the Bush administration's predilection for statism were characteristic of the Nixon era. While nominally Republican, that administration was hardly conservative.)

Apart from the "what are you hiding" liabilities of a closed-government posture, the national defense downside could be enormous. (Obviously, we are not talking about operational timetables, targets, or objectives.)

Surely the President should be explaining and re-explaining our grand strategy to our own citizens. How, for example, would voters receive a major military misfortune in the Mideast? If the President does not give the news-alert public enough facts and geography to light up the big picture, he could suffer a grievous loss of national confidence should an operation go wrong.

There is a wealth of strategic and military detail now available from internet news originating in allied or friendly countries although inexplicably ignored by mainstream media. But the country needs plain, periodic talk from the President about the extent of the threat, our response, the likely costs, and our long-term goals.

During some dicey moments in the Cold War, one U. S. Senator (and a former national chairman of his party) twice stood out publicly against reigning orthodoxies in his own party's White House. Washington State Democratic Senator Henry Jackson criticized both our credulous United Nations policy in 1962 and weak spots in President Kennedy's Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. One authority quotes Howard Baker on "Scoop" Jackson's work in government: "Jackson made sure we did not lose the Cold War in 1970s so that Ronald Reagan could win it in the 1980s."

Conservatives today would be well served by someone of this stature playing a parallel role, urging the Bush Administration to do the right thing on selected domestic and even national-security issues. Certainly grass-roots activists would be more reconciled knowing there was such a strong, independent, and respected voice in Congress.

The President himself could bring many conservatives closer by passing the word that thoughtful center-right dissent from White House positions or priorities is not high treason, recognizing that the give-and-take process itself could even advance his goals.

What should grass-roots activists do today even if we cannot reverse bad White House decisions or cast future presidential messages into ones of persuasive hope for American investors?

The simple answer: strengthen the genuinely conservative people in the Bush Administration, in the Congress, in state and local government, and in this Fall's races.

The wrong answer: wallow in self-pity about White House operatives taking "one's vote for granted" or administration policy folks turning a deaf if polite ear.

When incumbents and challengers seek our support, we must pin them down on taxes and regulation, on administrative accountability and legislative oversight, on school competition and property rights, and on traditional American liberties such as free speech during political campaigns.

In the case of gubernatorial races, we must be sure our challengers, when successful, will put the right people in charge of their state's administrative branch and not succumb to pressures for increasing taxes and intrusive state regulation. There are many Reagan conservatives in the Congress, but few among governors.

Unfortunately, grass-roots conservatives tend to forget that "there is a war on" as they battle local tax scams, intrusive zoning, and underperforming schools. We all must remember that this is not just a "police action" to nail Osama bin Laden and stop some nebulous folks called "terrorists" from striking again, however important that is. The war really is a worldwide struggle against a dangerous, militant sect with many faithful adherents, admirers, and trouble-making well-wishers.

Grass-roots activists must vigorously support the prosecution of the war while at the same time they work to promote prosperity and personal liberty through lower taxes, smaller government, and freer trade.

This is a tall order, but any other course is unthinkable.

Richard Falknor is an officer of the Maryland Taxpayers Association http://www.mdtaxes.org, but the views he expresses are solely his own. Falknor was a long-time managing editor of a national weekly health-business newsletter. Previously, he had been on the professional staff of both houses of the Congress, and an appointee in the Department of Transportation.