Can the unshakeable be shaken? Is it already shaking? These are relevant questions as Condi Rice testifies and Iraq turns ugly. Especially since 9/11, a key feature of the political landscape has been George W. Bush's granite-like Republican/conservative base. But fissures are appearing and the war may widen them. Facing a close race with Democrat John Kerry, the president can't afford to spend much time reassuring his friends. But he may have to.
To be sure, Republicans and conservatives for the most part, on most issues, are with Bush and will remain there. They like his instincts, his religiosity, his love of traditional values, his willingness to use force, his tax cuts and much more. Under the tutelage of Karl Rove, Bush's career-long strategic imperative has been to Get Right with the Right — and stay there. And Bush's minions will spend much of the campaign trying to depict Kerry as a right-thinking conservative's nightmare — a Frenchified, flip-flopping, big-spending, secular liberal from the Land of Many Kennedys.
But varying elements of the GOP "base" have developed grievances that could, if nothing else, disillusion some voters on the margins, keeping them home instead of at the polls on Election Day in swing states the president needs to carry. Some of the grievances:
1. Immigration. A firm stand against illegal immigration is a bedrock belief of most conservatives — indeed, of most Americans. But activists on the right are furious at the administration, which is eager to court Hispanic voters, for its proposals to grant what amounts to amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Conservative anger has been stoked by the president's brother, Jeb Bush, who has proposed to allow illegal immigrants to acquire driver's licenses. The assumption — probably the correct one — is that the governor of the key state of Florida would not have made such a move without first checking with his brother the president, or Rove.
2. Spending. Republicans are in charge of both chambers of Congress, and they've become as skilled as the Democrats ever were at the art of pork barreling. Believe it or not, there are conservative voters (and Americans generally) who care about the huge and growing federal deficits. It's not enough to say, as Bush and Dick Cheney are, that Kerry would be worse. He wouldn't run the Congress; the GOP does, and that might convince some conservatives to stay home.
3. “Faith-based initiatives.” Evangelicals honor Bush for his religiosity and admire his expressions of faith, and faith in traditional values. But their more politicized leaders want him to, as they used to say in the Bronx, "decorate the mahogany" — that is, lay some cash on the bar. It's faith-based pork: federal money flowing to churches and religious institutions to carry out the aims of government social-welfare programs. Only one problem: Not much money is flowing. Kerry isn't going to make an issue of the lack of cash — he's against the whole idea, basically — but the pastors may.
4. Troops in Iraq. Despite erosion elsewhere, conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly support the decision to go to Iraq, and still tend to believe (unlike the rest of America) that going there was part of the war on terrorism generally and has made us safer here at home. But the president is about to be buffeted in two directions on the issue of how long to stay there and how many troops to keep there. Rural areas in swing states such as West Virginia, Arkansas and Arizona have contributed soldiers in disproportionately high numbers, and, while patriotism is strong, doubts are growing. Reupping reservists for yet another tour of duty — after the extraordinarily long ones they already have faced — would add to grass-roots concerns. And yet there is increasing criticism from some Republicans, among them Sen. John McCain, that the Pentagon hasn't put enough troops and support into the effort in Iraq and that dialing back now would be a disaster.
5. The draft. The Republican Party and Bush in particular are strong on college campuses, much stronger than the establishment press tends to realize. But that could be jeopardized if talk of reinstating the draft gets serious. So far, administration officials have talked only about the need to ensure a steady supply of high-tech specialists in the armed forces. But if you visit colleges — and I do, of all sizes and descriptions — the undertone of worry is there, big time.