After a Memorial Day spent campaigning in his district, a Republican House member turned on the television Monday night to encounter a positive advertisement by George W. Bush's reelection campaign. To the congressman's dismay, it praised the president's education bill (with the tag line: "Because no child in America should be left behind"). That was probably the second least favorite ad possible in the opinion of this lawmaker.

The worst possible advertisement for conservative congressmen would have been one praising President Bush's prescription drug bill. Their constituents are unhappy about both the school and prescription drug programs. So, to get Republican voters out of their living rooms and into the polling booth on Election Day, they want the Bush campaign to stop talking about these unpopular proposals. These legislators are cheered by public statements by Ken Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager, that this campaign will highlight ideological differences between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

There is a disconnect, however. While conservatives hope for Mehlman to guide a strategy to their liking, the campaign manager believes there is nothing inconsistent about pursuing this goal and promoting the education bill on television. Mehlman follows Bush's own beliefs. The president is proud of the very programs his conservative base most dislikes, leading some of the president's supporters to wonder whether George W. Bush is really a conservative.

Seeds of this concern were inadvertently planted by the president himself when he went to Capitol Hill on May 20, shortly before the Memorial Day recess. More than 200 Republican members of both houses of Congress had been told that Bush would make a brief preliminary statement, with microphones set up in the aisles for extensive questioning of the president to follow. Inexplicably, Bush launched into a meandering presentation lasting the better part of an hour with no questions -- exactly the format he uses for fundraising presentations.

Bush was off to a good start by talking about his tax cuts, the heart of his economic recovery program and of supply-side ideology. The lawmakers cheered and applauded. But their response diminished to a few hands clapping when the president turned to his education program.

He encountered dead silence in going on to the prescription drug program. "I guess your eyes just glazed over," an unamused Bush told his congressional audience. Defiantly, he said: "Other presidents have promised help for prescription drugs, but I have actually done it." That generated a little applause. Only when Bush mentioned health care savings accounts, the token conservative element in the prescription drug bill, did he again get an enthusiastic reaction from the legislators.

The president concluded with an exposition on Iraq that, while a little disorganized, was greeted warmly. For the most part, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not abandoning Bush on the war.

The unhappy meeting with Bush preceded meetings with unhappy constituents congressmen faced during their recess. The voters of the conservative base have no use for "no child left behind," but that is a nagging old pain. What acutely torments these voters is the prescription drug bill. Republicans are fearful that the plan will take away benefits they have and replace them with something they don't want.

It was common for Republican congressmen during this recess to be approached by a voter asking this question: Isn't it true that if we had John Kerry as president and a Republican majority in Congress opposing him, we never would have had this prescription drug bill? The implication is that conservatives in Congress could be real conservatives with an ineffective Democrat in the White House.

Actually, Bush's defeat more likely would trigger an enormous internal explosion inside the Republican Party between forces temporarily held together in an effort to elect a president. Nor are Republicans still confident that in the wake of Bush's defeat, they would hold the Senate or even the House. Coming back from their recess, Republican House members foresee losses in November.

These congressmen believe their constituents will stand with the president on Iraq. They also fear the president does not appreciate the extent of disillusionment in his base. At least, they say, he should stop talking about the education and prescription drug bills.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.