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The conservative crack up

How perceptions of cronyism, corruption and incompetence are taking a toll on the Bush Administration and the Conservative movement. By Howard Fineman.

President George W. Bush may have no military exit strategy for Iraq, but the “neocons” who convinced him to go to war there have developed one of their own — a political one: Blame the Administration.

Their neo-Wilsonian theory is correct, they insist, but the execution was botched by a Bush team that has turned out to be incompetent, crony-filled, corrupt, unimaginative and weak over a wide range of issues.

The flight of the neocons — just read a recent Weekly Standard to see what I am talking about — is one of only many indications that the long-predicted “conservative crackup” is at hand.

The “movement” – that began 50 years ago with the founding of Bill Buckley’s National Review; that had its coming of age in the Reagan Years; that reached its zenith with Bush’s victory in 2000 — is falling apart at the seams.

In 1973, Karl Rove met George W. Bush, and became the R2D2 and Luke Skywalker of Republican politics. At first, neither was plugged into “The Force” — the conservative movement. But over the years they learned how to use its power.

By the time Bush was in his second term as governor, laying the groundwork for his presidential run, he and Rove had gathered all of the often competing and sometimes contradictory strains of conservatism into one light beam. You could tell by the people they brought to Austin.

To tie down the religious conservatives, they nudged John Ashcroft out of the race and conducted a literal laying on of hands at the governor’s mansion with leaders such as James Dobson.

For the libertarian anti-tax crowd, they brought in certified supply-sider Larry Lindsey as the top economic advisor.

For the traditional war hawks they brought in Paul Wolfowitz, among others, to get Bush up to speed on the world.

For the traditional corporate types – well, Bush had that taken care of on his own.

But now all the constituent parts are — for various reasons — going their own way. Here's a checklist:

Religious conservatives
The Harriet Miers nomination was the final insult. Religious conservatives have an inferiority complex in the Republican Party. In an interesting way, it’s the same attitude that many African-Americans have had toward the Democratic Party over the years. They think that the Big Boys want their votes but not their presence or their full participation.

And what really frosts the religious types is that Bush evidently feels that he can only satisfy them by stealth — by nominating someone with absolutely no paper trail. It’s an affront.  And even though Dr. Dobson is on board — having been cajoled aboard by Rove — I don’t sense that there is much enthusiasm for the enterprise out in Colorado Springs.

I expect that any GOP 2008 hopeful who wants evangelical support — people like Sam Brownback, Rick Santorum  and maybe even George Allen — will vote against Miers's confirmation in the Senate.

Corporate CEOs
For them, Bush’s handling of Katrina was, and remains, a mortal embarrassment to their class, which Bush is supposed to have represented — at least to some extent.

These are people who believe in the Faith of Management — in anticipating problems and moving mass organizations. They also like to think of themselves as having a social conscience. And even if they don’t, they are sensitive to world opinion.

The vivid images from the Superdome were just too much for these folks. Recently, a prominent Republican businessman, whom I saw in a typical CEO haunt, astonished me with the severity of his attacks on Bush’s competence. And Bush had appointed this guy to a major position! Amazing.

Main Street: Smaller government deficit hawks
This is an old-fashioned but important core of conservatism: people who think federal spending should be relentlessly reduced, and that we should always view with suspicion any proposals to increase the role of the federal government in local and private life.

After binges of spending and legislating, backbenchers in the GOP, especially in the House, are in open revolt, having gathered around Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Sen. John McCain in the Senate. They tend to view the “Leadership’s” spending habits with alarm.

An old term, but still applicable. With the fall of Communism in Europe and Russia, the old anti-Communist wing of the conservative movement lost its role. Now the isolationists of old are back, and with a new crusade: immigration.

The relatively unchecked flood of illegal immigrants into this country is indeed a legitimate cause for alarm. But in the eyes of this crowd — one leader is my MSNBC colleague, Pat Buchanan — the Bush Administration is doing nothing.

They think that the Middle East can be remade, and this country made safe, by instilling a semblance of democracy in the Fertile Crescent and beyond. But they seem to have given up on the ability of the Bush Administration to see that vision through.

They want more troops, not fewer; more money, not less; more passion, not the whispered talk of timetables for withdrawal.

Besides championing democracy, we need to show strength and resolve, they believe — and they are no longer convinced that Bush can show much of either.

This is the one faction that the president has yet to disappoint in a major way. He pushed through two major tax cuts, and is pushing more — targeted ones — in the wake of Katrina.

Deep in their collective memory bank, Bush and Rove remember what happened when Daddy moved his lips and raised taxes. But now that the son has been reelected, will he move his lips, too? If the conservative crack up is to be complete — and I think it will be — the answer is yes.