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I have had two very different running conversations this year. The first is with inside-the-beltway Republican politicians. They tell me things are going fine and they’re doing the best they can. The other conversation has been with conservative activists all across America. They tell me how bad things look. They say it appears the politicians don’t care about freedom anymore.
Activists get involved because they want to make a difference. They hold core beliefs and values and are willing to sacrifice their time and money to advance these beliefs. They’re willing to organize their neighborhoods, develop phone banks, distribute literature and mobilize voters. They do really important work. But rhetoric and spin is not their thing – they’re involved in the process because they want to see results. And, right now, they aren’t seeing results.
President Bush remains remarkably popular with the conservative base. I sense people view him as a decent and honest man, and like all Americans, conservatives support the commander-in-chief. But there is uneasiness with some of the decisions of the “Bush Administration.” In particular, the farm bill and steel quotas have frustrated conservatives because they want to see the size and scope of government reduced – not expanded.
More worrisome, if you are a partisan Republican, is the growing frustration of the conservative base with the generic “Republican Party.” Take away President Bush’s personal popularity, and there is genuine anger and disappointment with the performance of the Republican Party.
Government is growing right now – at every level and in almost every area. That is a factual statement and it upsets the conservative activist base.
Social Security is headed towards bankruptcy and the Republican Congressional Committee is advising Republican congressional candidates not to talk about the issue. That is a factual statement and it upsets the conservative activist base.
The activists I talk with can’t believe Republicans would allow liberal demagogues to get away with scaring seniors citizens, let alone scaring Republican candidates. When politicians who are on record supporting personal retirement accounts flip-flop in the heat of battle, activists quickly become disillusioned.
Activists know, like most Americans, that the current structure of Social Security is unsustainable. Because they care about public policy, they have read the policy papers and the reports. The activists believe personal retirement accounts provide the only viable alternative to tax increases and benefit cuts.
And, here is something else conservative activists believe: That Republican politicians know Social Security is going bankrupt and personal retirement accounts provide the only viable solution to tax increases and benefit cuts.
So, when a Republican politician flip-flops on Social Security reform, the activists don’t view it as a change of heart based on facts. They see it as a political sellout caused by the unwillingness of the politician to fight for his or her core beliefs.
As I said, conservative activists do really important work. Precinct walks, phone banks, literature drops, voter mobilization – the work that makes a big difference in off-year elections. But it’s voluntary work. These dedicated citizens have complete lives and other obligations. They do the volunteer work on behalf of freedom because they’re motivated and they think they can make a difference. When their leaders let them down, activists stay home, and that hurts freedom.
Political leaders running political campaigns can make their own decisions about strategy. Elected officials make their own decisions about how and when to fight for freedom. On the other hand, their decisions have consequences – and from the conversations I’ve been having all year with our best activists, it appears the politicians have decided they don’t need their base. The problem is that on Election Day this November, the conservative base may decide they don’t need the politicians.