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The Base vs. Bush

By Jed Babbin

The president's illegal immigration speech was intended to calm rebellious conservatives, to begin steering our energies toward Republican victory in November. Not only did it fail in that - for reasons as much substantive as political - but it revealed just how wide a gap separates President Bush from the conservative base that elected him twice.

Conservatives reacted in much the same way we did to his predecessors' speeches. Whatever Clinton said - and he said a lot, almost none of it making any sense or speaking any truth - we reflexively tore into him and his feckless policies. The Clinton era taught us that the faster and more accurate the reaction, the greater the chance of turning the political momentum in our direction. We trained our noses to detect the faintest odor of baloney and reduced our reaction time to the tenths of a second it takes to hit the speed dial on our cell phones.

George W. Bush was never a small government conservative, but we were willing to put up with the bad because it was outweighed by the good he was doing against terrorists. Our habit of cutting Mr. Bush a lot of slack was eroding under the burdens of hundreds of billions in pork and the lack of productive congressional action. It ended abruptly with his announcement of the Harriett Miers nomination to the Supreme Court. It took us less time to figure out why Miers was awful than it did the bloggers to determine that Dan Rather's Texas Air National Guard documents were forgeries. By the time we were reading the White House's advance excerpts of the Monday night speech -less than an hour before it was delivered - we'd already concluded that it was another Miers Moment. The reflexive conservative opposition to Clinton is now resurrecting itself and turning against President Bush.

Much of what the president said Monday made good sense. We need to control the border and - given the fact we've made too little progress in the past five years - it won't be done over night. And we can't throw ten or twelve million people out of our country, so we need to make sure that those who stay become Americans in the traditional sense, or are given some non-citizen status that serves our mutual purposes. If Mr. Bush had said that this year we'll control our borders and next year deal with guest worker and citizenship issues, he'd have conservatives rallying around him. But he didn't.

By the end of the speech, it wouldn't have surprised me to see the cameras cut to William F. Buckley, Jr. for a formal declaration that conservatives had lost all patience with Mr. Bush. But it's so much better and - in some ways - so much worse than that. What drives conservatives bonkers is Mr. Bush's failure to speak and act decisively on the problems we think most urgent.

As a war president he began well, then somehow morphed into what FDR would have been without Churchill: indecisive, irresolute. Declaring a global war against terror, he said nations would be forced to choose to be either with us or against us. But as soon as the echo of those words died away, there were influential nations who weren't quite for us, such as France and those who weren't quite against us such as, well, France. China and Russia are indisputably aligned with the terrorist nations, but never is heard the disparaging words that should be aimed at them.

We talking warheads lined up squarely behind the idea of attacking Iraq because we were convinced Saddam was a real danger and because taking his regime out would have driven a wedge between Iran and Syria, enabling us to deal with each of them more quickly and to at least conceive what victory would look like. But somehow the war against terrorist regimes became a war to create democracy. Why, we still wonder, does the president allow those nations that interfere to thwart democracy in Iraq (Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran) to control the pace and direction of the war? Why aren't we applying the lesson of Vietnam, which is that if you don't prosecute a war to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably? At home, decisiveness is Mr. Bush's trademark. Except when it isn't.

The NSA terrorist surveillance program is innovative, effective and - despite what the New York Times and its obedient soldiers such as Kennedy, Durbin and Schumer may say - clearly legal. The president was right to order it and we are right in joining in his defense of it. The NSA is reportedly doing some data analysis with phone records. Did, as USA Today reported, some telephone companies cooperate? If they did, why couldn't the president give them a word of praise for helping detect terrorists in our midst? Why is praise reserved for the likes of Vicente Fox?

The president, in his Monday speech, insisted that, "Mexico is our neighbor and our friend." Mexico would be less corrupt - and probably better-run - if its president were Tony Soprano. Fox's government is doing everything in its power to export its poverty to the United States and is even threatening lawsuits if National Guard troops join in arresting illegal immigrants. Every year, at the end of the latest "Three Amigos" summit with Fox and Canada's prime minister, President Bush has nothing but praise for Mexico and its leader. What makes Mexico immune to pressure from the United States?

In his speech, the president promised, again, to end the loony "catch and release" program which puts illegal aliens on the streets of America with a summons for a court date that few bother to meet. But he promised that months ago and failed to deliver. He said, "More than 85 percent of illegal aliens we catch crossing the southern border are Mexicans, and most are sent back home within 24 hours. But when we catch illegal immigrants from other countries, it is not easy to send them home." Why send them home? If they enter from Mexico, why can't we ship them back into Mexico and force Vicente Fox to do something about the problem?

These are only some of the questions conservatives ask, and to which the president poses no answers. The answers define the gap between the conservative base and the president. The love may have gone out of the marriage between conservatives and Mr. Bush. But both sides need to work hard to patch things up. If we don't, the divorce court may award Nancy Pelosi one House, and Hillary may be able to grab the other.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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