The Washington Times

The frustration of Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, the former Republican now turned independent presidential aspirant, is certainly not hard to understand. With each day that passes, Texas Gov. George W. Bush seems to get about two days closer to the GOP presidential nomination. (Vice President Al Gore, on the other hand, is still losing ground in his bid to lock down the Democratic nomination.) On the GOP side, what most people as recently as a year ago thought would surely be a free-for-all began this year as a George W. bandwagon and is now a juggernaut.

But why? Well, to Mr. Smith’s way of thinking, and indeed to most of those on the GOP side trying to cast themselves as immovable objects in opposition to Mr. Bush’s irresistible force, the answer is that the GOP establishment has decided to anoint Mr. Bush as the nominee, freeze out all the opposition and in effect shut down the primary process.

From Mr. Smith’s point of view, and not from his alone, this GOP establishment is hostile to conservatives such as himself. It regards their firmly held convictions as an impediment to electoral success and an embarrassment in polite company. Concern about social issues, particularly abortion, is especially unwelcome where the establishment gathers. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, in this view, is grating both as a slogan and as a governing principle. In the first place, it validates the liberal contention that there is something wrong with conservatism as such, an intolerable hard-heartedness. Conservatism, in the view of these conservatives, does not require a modifier to indicate a connection to and concern for people.

In policy terms, in this view, the best that can be said of compassionate conservatism is that it is willfully fuzzy – designed primarily to obscure policy preferences on which a more honorable approach is clarity. Worse, it could prove to be code for an abandonment of conservative principle altogether. If Democrats have their Third Way, according to which the liberal-left wing of the party must content itself with less influence, compassion-cons may be seeking to set out what Tony Blankley called on this page a Fourth Way in politics for Republicans. Conservatives of Mr. Smith’s persuasion, and many others, have no use for such a brand of Republicanism. Among other things, they tend to believe the conservative part of compassionate conservative is lip service designed to keep conservatives from getting out of line, all the while selling out the causes they believe in.

Ronald Reagan once said of the Democratic Party that he didn’t leave it; it left him. From Mr. Smith’s point of view, the Republican Party has left conservatives behind in the name of electability.

To be sure, some conservatives have made something of a specialty over the years of threatening to leave the GOP. Sometimes, they have done so in an effort to advance conservative ends within the party – reminding others that their support is not to be taken for granted. Sometimes they have just been seeking attention for themselves and their causes. Now, though, Mr. Smith has actually cut the cord, something even the flamboyant incendiarist Pat Buchanan has refused to do.

Much of what Mr. Smith thinks is true – including what he thinks certain other Republicans think of him. But he is spectacularly wrong on a critical point. And while some Republicans are concerned that the fragmentation of the right will only end up rewarding Democrats, the more likely outcome here is a fizzle.

Yes, the GOP establishment backs Mr. Bush. But this is hardly the Eastern, liberal GOP establishment of 1963. By now, the GOP establishment includes large numbers of conservatives – people Mr. Smith, too, would have to identify as conservative.

What is striking about the support for Mr. Bush is how many such conservatives have found a home with him.

Bush forces can hardly be said to have hijacked the nominating process, cutting the conservatives out. They have been too busy answering the door when conservatives have come knocking. Have these conservatives cut their conscience to fit this year’s fashion, namely, out of a primal desire for electoral victory after two terms of deprivation? Among the ones I know, I have detected no such conversion, no sudden outbreak of moderate or liberal deviationism. No, the story is one of calculation.

In general, they have concluded that the unvarnished conservatism of the sort they espouse, at least given the field of available candidates who might espouse it as a GOP presidential candidate in 2000, is unlikely to constitute a winning appeal to voters. The best means to advance conservative ends, in their view, is through someone who can run as a conservative with a difference.

It’s not a lack of faith in conservatism as a governing principle; it’s a lack of faith in conservatism’s current political popularity. This is not a change of heart about conservatism or a weakening of resolve to see conservative principles through, but a questioning of conservatism’s erstwhile populist claims.

This is a gamble, of course. One could end up being led down the garden path. But it is not irrational.

The Smith campaign will have little appeal for those conservatives who, as it happens, agree with Mr. Smith on most of his issues and would vote with him, were they senators, 98 percent of the time – but who have made a political calculation that the best way for their ideas to win is through the agency of Mr. Bush.