WASHINGTON — For interest groups in this town, there is a time to support your man and a time to prod him. And some conservatives here say it may be time to explore the latter part of that equation with President George W. Bush.
As a candidate, Mr. Bush walked a fine line on policy proposals, carefully outlining broad positions and leaving specifics for later, in the hope of winning moderate and conservative votes alike. Conservative groups largely stood by him, believing a Bush White House would, in the end, be responsive to their concerns.
But now the campaign is over, the honeymoon is drawing to a close, and some conservatives are beginning to wonder if it is time to apply a little constructive pressure. On issues from abortion to the president's plan for faith-based initiatives to school vouchers, social conservatives are starting to sound off, concerned that Bush may be heading too much to the political center.
"He is a decent man and a man of good character, but the jury is still out on his policies," says Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. "I am concerned that some of my conservative allies are being too careful in pressuring the president. We need to be loving critics of the administration."
The question now is how Bush handles the stirrings on the right, when he is facing an evenly divided Congress that is not likely to pass anything that does not smack of centrism. Making the president's job harder still is the fact that he won one of the closest elections in history after a month of court battles and recounts.
But conservatives feel Bush owes them a lot. When his campaign was faltering after a huge primary defeat in New Hampshire, he was propped back up by reliably conservative South Carolina. And if Bush needs any reminder of how much power the far right can hold, conservatives point out that his father was denied a second term after he lost their support.
Not that all conservatives are challenging Bush's priorities. The supply-side wing of the Republican Party and business interests have been overwhelmingly pleased with Bush's work so far. Tax-cutters, like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, have been singing the praises of the president's economic plans. And businesses feel Bush has listened to their concerns, especially after he reversed his stance on the need to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.
But some cultural conservatives say the president is not moving fast enough on issues that matter to them. Ironically, Bush's announcement last week on CO2 may actually embolden social conservatives, says Bauer, by giving them a model on how to push the president.
"The western Republicans and business interests simply said, 'If you do these things it will be considered an act of war.' And lo and behold, he didn't do it," Bauer says. "There is a lesson in there to the other elements of the party."
The size of Bush's potential problems comes into sharpest relief on the abortion issue.
Although abortion-rights groups viewed the president's executive order banning the use of federal funds at family-planning clinics in other countries as an extreme step, Bauer says it was a necessity.
"If he hadn't have done that, people would have been incredulous," Bauer says. "What really matters now, though, is what does he do on the Supreme Court vacancies?"
Bush's faith-based initiatives plan, meanwhile, has drawn some of the loudest criticism not from the left, but from some of his biggest supporters. The Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have both expressed concerns that federal money may go to faiths they do not support.
"I don't see how any [religious groups] can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views," Mr. Falwell said in an interview with Beliefnet.com. "I don't know where that would take us."
Though Falwell also praised Bush in the interview, his criticism of the Bush plan got people's attention and gave its opposition new ammunition.
But Tom Jipping, director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy, says these critics on the right are "making the perfect the enemy of the good."
He points to the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Bush's recent stance against the American Bar Association's ratings of judges as positive signs for conservatives.
"There may come a time when we are unhappy with the decisions from the White House, but we ain't there," Mr. Jipping says.
Still, despite his overall support, Jipping is openly critical of the way the administration is handling implementation of the faith-based plan. He says Bush may be relying too heavily on "people brought up from Texas" instead of the "movement conservatives" from inside the Beltway. "It's possible that in this area, they didn't serve him too well," Jipping says.
A group of conservatives, Jipping among them, were scheduled to meet with administration representatives yesterday to talk about a better way to implement the faith-based program.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor