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Sunday, March 12, 2006

They Don't Like Him Either: Simmering GOP Revolt


Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Washington -- The Republican rebellion that President Bush smacked into with the Dubai ports deal was the tip of an iceberg of Republican discontent that is much deeper and more dangerous to the White House than a talk radio tempest over Arabs running U.S. ports.

A Republican pushback on Capitol Hill and smoldering conservative dissatisfaction have already killed not just the ports deal but key elements of Bush's domestic agenda, and threaten GOP control of Congress if unhappy conservatives sit out the November midterm elections.

The apostasy in some quarters runs to heretofore unthinkable depths.

"If I had a choice and Bush were running today against (Democratic President) Bill Clinton, I'd vote for Bill Clinton," said Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan administration Treasury Department official whose book, "Impostor: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," is making the rounds of conservative think tanks and talk shows. "He was clearly a much better president in a great many ways that matter to me."

Bartlett may lie at the extreme, but his critique taps into a strong undertow -- reflected in a sharp drop in Bush's support among his typically solid Republican base, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday.

"Bush's compassionate conservatism has morphed into big government conservatism, and that isn't what the base is looking for," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "The White House and the congressional leadership have got to reinvigorate the Republican base. In off-year elections ... if your base isn't energized, particularly in a relatively evenly divided electorate, you've got more problems than you think you have."

Any significant drop in GOP turnout in the November midterms -- when the party in power is historically weak -- could prove disastrous for Republicans.

A Democratic takeover of either the House or the Senate would expose Republicans to a nightmare scenario: loss of control over policymaking and relentless congressional investigations of the White House that would consume the rest of Bush's presidency and damage Republican presidential prospects in 2008.

"Republicans are in a deep funk," said Marshall Wittman, a former aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., now at the centrist Democratic Progressive Policy Institute. "They're going to have to send out doses of Prozac in the (Republican National Committee) direct-mail pieces."

Whither the base?

The entire House and a third of the Senate are up for grabs in just seven months. Democrats need a gain of six seats to win back control of the Senate and 15 seats to retake the House. Bush's election strategies have always hinged on a motivated conservative base.

"At the end of the day, the bulk of us are with the president and with the leadership, but that's because we don't have any other place to go," said Manuel Miranda, head of the conservative Third Branch Conference who helped kill Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. "We suppose they're doing the best they can, but we're all very unhappy."

Although the Iraq war is hurting Bush with all voters, the deeper conservative discontent is with the spectacular growth of spending during the last five years that rivals that of a famously free-spending Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson.

Frustration over spending now threatens to overshadow Bush's accomplishments that conservatives love: his first-term tax cuts and his nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"I think it's the biggest reason our base is so disenchanted with Republicans right now," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "The president has been great on tax cuts, and been great on a few issues, economic growth, pretty good on trade -- little hiccup on some steel tariffs there -- but I think most of us recognize that these tax cuts are increasingly difficult to defend politically because of the increase in spending."