BY BOB BARR (former Republican representative from Georgia)
Voting for president used to be so easy, at least for a conservative. There was the Republican candidate. You knew he generally stood for lower taxes, less government spending, giving fewer powers to the government, lower deficits and a zealous regard for individual privacy.
Then, there was the Democrat. You knew he generally stood for higher taxes, more government and deficit spending, and a zealous regard for civil liberties.
Throughout my own presidential voting history, the choices have rarely, if ever, been agonizing. Nixon vs. McGovern? Carter vs. Reagan? Reagan-Mondale? Dukakis, a Massachusetts liberal? Clinton? Al Gore? Ah, the good ol' days. Each of those races presented clear choices, easily resolved.
Now we have the election of 2004. For the first time in my voting life, the choice in the race for president isn't so clear And, among true conservatives, I'm not alone.
What's making the contest so difficult? It's certainly not that both candidates are so conservative that we have a choice of riches. It's not even that John Kerry is sort of right wing compared to George W. Bush. The incumbent clearly is the more "conservative" of the two.
But the concerns for many conservative voters -- concerns that may cause them not to vote for Mr. Bush on Nov. 2 -- fall generally into three categories: fiscal, physical (as in the physical security of our nation) and freedom (as in protecting our civil liberties).
When Bush became president Jan. 20, 2001, he inherited an enviable fiscal situation. Congress, then controlled by his own party, had -- through discipline and tough votes -- whittled down decades of deficit spending under presidents of both parties, so that annual deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars had been transformed to a series of real and projected surpluses. The heavy lifting had been done. All Bush had to do was resist the urge to spend, and he had to exert some pressure on Congress to resist its natural impulses to do the same. Had he done that, he might have gone down in history as the most fiscally conservative president in modern times.
Instead, what we got were record levels of new spending, including nearly double-digit increases in nondefense discretionary spending. We now have deficits exceeding those that the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years faced when it convened in January 1995.
The oft-repeated mantra that "the terrorists made us spend more" rings hollow, especially to those who actually understand that increases in nondefense discretionary spending are not the inevitable result of fighting terrorists. It also irritates many conservatives, whether or not they support the war in Iraq, that so much of defense spending is being poured into the black hole of Iraq's internal security, while the security of our own borders goes wanting.
That brings us to the second major beef conservatives have with the president. He's seen as failing to take real steps to improve our border security. In many respects, because of his apparent desire to appease his compadre to the south -- Mexican President Vincente Fox -- Bush has made matters worse. More people are entering our country illegally than ever before, more than 3 million this year alone -- and most of them are stampeding across from Mexico.
It seems as if every time an effort is made to implement measures that would crack down on illegal immigration, Fox complains, and the White House tells our enforcement folks to back off. Perhaps that is why intelligence reports indicate al-Qaeda is actively recruiting in Central America.
At the same time, here at home, many law-abiding citizens accurately perceive that their own freedoms and civil liberties are being stripped. They are being profiled by government computers whenever they want to travel, their bank accounts are being summarily closed because they may fit some "profile," they are under surveillance by cameras paid for by that borrowed federal money, and, if the administration has its way, they will be forced to carry a national identification card. That skewed sense of priorities really rankles conservatives.
Those are but three tips of the iceberg that signal the deep dissatisfaction many conservatives harbor against the president. Thus far, however, with Bush's political gurus telling him he's ahead and to just lay low and not make any major gaffes, he seems unwilling to recognize the problems on his right flank. Or he seems to have concluded that he doesn't need to address those concerns because the ineptitude of the Kerry campaign hasn't forced him to.
But the race appears to be tightening again. It's likely to remain tight until Election Day. Those dissatisfied conservative voters will become increasingly important, but it's going to be impossible for the president to pull them back in with hollow, last-minute promises.
Bush's problem is that true conservatives remember their history. They recall that in recent years when the nation enjoyed the fruits of actual conservative fiscal and security policies, a Democrat occupied the White House and Congress was controlled by a Republican majority that actually fought for a substantive conservative agenda.
History's a troublesome thing for presidents. Even though most voters don't take much of a historical perspective into the voting booth with them, true conservatives do.
Hmmm. Who's the Libertarian candidate again?