Among the Believers: With His Winning Charm and User-Friendly Conservatism, George W. Bush Has Neutralized-At Least for Now-His Family's Old Enemies on the Reagan Right

By Fineman, Howard | Newsweek, July 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Among the Believers: With His Winning Charm and User-Friendly Conservatism, George W. Bush Has Neutralized-At Least for Now-His Family's Old Enemies on the Reagan Right


Fineman, Howard, Newsweek


In the old days--when Ronald Reagan was on the rise--the Virginia suburbs of Washington were enemy turf for a candidate named Bush. The conservative movement was based there, in storefronts on busy highways, deploying new grass-roots techniques--direct-mail fund-raising, attack ads on TV, appeals against abortion and the United Nations. The aim was simple enough: to destroy a Republican establishment symbolized by the Bush family. The local hero was Reagan, who felt at home on the ramparts of the old Confederacy, and who refused to move his own headquarters across the Potomac until he took the oath of office.

George W. Bush's royal progress passed though the same northern Virginian territory last week, and in so doing demonstrated that everything had changed--on the ground and in the party. The "movement" remains, in the form of the headquarters of Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, and in the offices of groups such as the National Rifle Association. But the action is elsewhere: on the vast travertine campuses of companies such as America Online. Reagan's old encampment, it turns out, has become the Capital of the Internet, a hive of entrepreneurial energy buzzing with technologies pioneered nearby--at the Pentagon.

This new anti-Washington is predominantly Republican and, by its own lights, conservative. But its denizens tend to care more about education than abortion, more about global trade than evil empires. Drawn by Bush's star power, looking not to enlist in a crusade but to back a winner and be left alone to make a bundle, hundreds of executives last week forked over $1,000 each to hear the governor of Texas preach his soothing mantra of "compassionate conservatism."

The primaries are six months away--light-years in politics, and plenty of time for front-running "W" to collapse. But so far his assets include not just the gobs of money he has raised (more than $40 million), but his talent for attracting, anesthetizing--even neutralizing--the conservatives who have long been pivotal to winning the GOP nomination. Many "movement" leaders distrust him, but don't know how to stop him. GOP elected officials are generally with him, and his rivals--most of them to his right--are starved for attention. One of them, Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, left the race last week (he endorsed Bush), and others could depart after a straw poll in Iowa next month.

Bush's rise is driving some movement types not just out of the race, but out of the party. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire quit the GOP last week, vowing to run as an independent in 2000. "Conservatives are frustrated and silent," he said. "We feel shut out." Smith is unlikely to play an important role next year, but others claimed his departure is a warning that the hard right will stay home next year if Bush is the nominee. "The perception at the grass roots is that the fix is in," fumed Phyllis Schlafly, a founding mother of the New Right. …

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