Instead of a big name—a Bush or an Aschroft—the White House offered policy manna for conservative activists attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Virginia Thursday.
For more than two decades, CPAC has been a sturdy oak of the conservative movement's message operation. It's where Ronald Reagan honed his skills as a political orator and where young conservatives can glom off the gleam of celebrities like Caspar Weinberger and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. This year, it's a singularly strong launch pad for the president's domestic agenda, which he outlined Tuesday during his State of the Union address.
Speaking first, Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, praised the party platform—a code phrase, of sorts, and a bow in the direction of pro-lifers, who hope to keep front and center the party's staunch opposition to abortion. A Republican Party spokesman said Racicot wasn't saying anything new but was merely affirming his fidelity to the president's position on the contentious issue.
A bit later in the day, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said that the administration would spend $135 million to combat teen pregnancy. The money would fund programs that primarily stress sexual abstinence.
Most significantly, but not immediately noticed by the flock, was Thompson's announcement of a small change in regulatory language. From now on, fetuses will be classified as children for the purposes of S-CHIP, a health insurance program.
Thursday afternoon, Thompson told reporters at a Washington hospital that the policy change wasn't pro-life or pro-choice, but was merely aimed at providing prenatal care to women. But Thompson's remarks at CPAC came moments after he reaffirmed the administration's opposition to partial birth abortion and its support for parental notification laws. "Unborn children should be welcomed to life and protected in law," he said." Abortion rights groups immediately denounced the decision but other politicians who support abortion rights were more cautious, hoping that the new language would give states more flexibility to sign women up for health insurance.
To be sure, these policy changes are small. They don't involve large sums of money. But they are bound to be challenged by Democrats and liberals, and serve to boost the socially conservative resume of the Bush administration. They may also energize activists to take to the streets on behalf of conservative candidates. After all, that's the whole point of CPAC.
The State of Conservatism
Before September 11th shifted American politics in Mr. Bush's favor, many right-of-center Republicans were concerned that the administration paid lip service to conservative values in order to attract non-conservative Americans to its politics.
Republicans, like Democrats, still face divisions within their party. Fiscal hawks are upset at the administration's new penchant for more government spending and a return to deficits, while other conservatives welcome the use of government largess for beneficial purposes. Civil libertarians in the party have protested recent Department of Justice policies, while others favor a stronger national security state. Social conservatives are dismayed that many in the party want to reach out to gays and lesbians.