As David Kuo, a former high-ranking official in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, faulted President Bush last week for not pushing the centerpiece of his "compassionate conservative" agenda, I was taken back to a hot summer day in Indianapolis nearly five years ago -- the day then-candidate Bush delivered the first policy speech of his first presidential campaign.
Rather than talk about tax cuts or increased defense spending or some other favorite conservative topic, the president chose to kick off his campaign by talking about bringing comfort and assistance to the poor, the downtrodden, those in need of a helping hand. It was stark repudiation to the Republican rhetoric of the Gingrich era and it helped the campaign define Bush as "a new kind of Republican."
But Bush was not repudiating conservative policies, merely defining new ways to talk about conservative principles. His faith-based initiative was a way to talk about downsizing the welfare state, encouraging the private sector to help people help themselves and using government as a catalyst for an end, rather than an end itself. It was, the campaign believed, a perfect way to appeal both to mainstream conservatives and to evangelicals as well as religious black and Hispanic voters.
I also recall the candidate's tortured efforts to handle issues related to gay rights. As Texas governor, Bush had never shown much heart for wading into hot-button social issues. It wasn't that he didn't have convictions, he just preferred to focus on issues such as tax cuts and the economy.
What do these two issues have to do with each other? People on both sides of the ideological fence accuse the president of using both issues for purely political purposes.
In a column on Beliefnet.com, Kuo, a conservative who is well-respected in the religious community, last week said the "snoring indifference" of the White House to the faith-based office has not been enough to overcome "knee-jerk" Democratic opposition. As a result, Bush has not fulfilled his promise to provide faith-based programs with $8 billion – one-tenth of the supplemental budget for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last year alone.
In other words, even as Bush used the faith-based initiative to define himself and energize religious voters, he's given little more than lip service to the policy.
There are similarities between this and the gay marriage issue. In an interview with The Post in January, President Bush made it clear that this was not exactly his top priority. Social conservatives were also dismayed to learn last month that when Senate leaders drew up a list of 10 priorities, a constitutional ban for gay marriage wasn't among them. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said on Fox News recently that Senate leaders might not push the amendment this year, but perhaps next.
Maggie Gallagher, the syndicated columnist who had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote a pro-marriage initiative, said that while Congress may not be ready to support such an amendment in any case, she wasn't completely against the idea of using the amendment as a wedge issue during next year's midterm elections.
"There might be some point to voting in 2006 directly before an election again and that can be revisited," she said. "I think it's important to have a vote to get people on the record."
Those who supported gay marriage went overwhelmingly for Kerry. Bush had a slight edge among those who supported civil unions, and an overwhelming edge among those who opposed any legal recognition. With the more moderate voters splitting their votes, Bush needed the most conservative voters to come out in big numbers to assure his reelection, those on the left argue.
"This has always been about politics, and that's always been clear," Steve Fisher, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said of the gay marriage amendment. "It's an effort to draw out the extremist base and exploit their education and understanding of what gay families face."
But even some social conservatives have pondered whether the president's support for their issues is as solid as he made it seem last year.
"The president needs to shore up any doubts that some may have about his commitment to this issue by using the bully pulpit of the presidency . . . to make it clear that he's not only committed to it, but it's a high priority," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in an interview with the Baptist Press, a news service published by the Southern Baptist Convention. "This is extremely important because without the president's strong support it will not be possible to get the required two-thirds vote in both the house and the senate."
But there is not unanimity of opinion among the religious right on this subject. I talked to the Rev. Lou Sheldon, who runs the Traditional Values Coalition, which advocates vociferously against gay marriage and civil unions, and he gives Bush a pass.
"That's a blessing for us. . . . We're not ready for a vote," Sheldon said. "We don't need to take a chance. We've only got 48 votes [in the Senate] and we need 67. . . . I do look for folks like us and other pro-family groups to be pushing it at the grassroots."
The White House has insisted that both the faith-based initiative and the gay marriage amendment continue to be top priorities.
Jan LaRue, of the socially conservative Concerned Women for America, said of course she'd like to see the president do more on these two issues, but she "doesn't doubt his conservative heart."
Nor should she. But hearts don't produce results. It'll be interesting to see if the president uses the political capital he gained through reelection to forcefully push through the policies he's championed -- this year, when there are no election speeches to be made.