"We were on our feet cheering–for five whole minutes!" Don Lester of Vachon Island, told me at breakfast shortly after President Bush’s address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, "I think he was genuinely embarrassed at the way we welcomed him."
Lester, a Vietnam veteran and leader of Veterans for Victory, and wife Susie got up early to welcome a President who has both delighted and severely disappointed conservatives as he delivered what could easily be called his valedictory address to the annual conclave of conservatives. Speaking at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, George W. Bush summarized his last seven years in the White House — frequently using the term “we” to refer to himself and the largest-yet of the annual gathering of conservatives.
“We engaged the opposition with a clear and consistent philosophy,” declared Bush to a packed ballroom at 7:15 AM (the timing of his addressed moved back so he could visit tornado-ravaged Tennessee). "He got up early for us," observed Crystal Ducker of Fargo, North Dakota, "So I could get up at 4:00 to listen to him and hear clearly what he has accomplished in the past seven years." Many of those who turned out to cheer him had hailed his two Supreme Court appointments and stand on world terror. But many also felt that Bush missed many opportunities to thwart the expansion of government and spending by vetoing next-to-nothing until his last two years in office.
As he frequently has, Bush hailed the tax cuts he proposed and that Congress passed when Republicans held a majority. “T]he tax cuts we passed contributed to a record 52 months of job creation,” said the President, “They helped produce strong economic growth – and the increased revenues from that growth have put us on track to a balanced budget by 2012. Here’s the bottom line: tax relief works.”
Then he pointed out that “[w]e are reducing wasteful spending”– a claim many in the room would have disparaged or at least said “too little, too late.”
Bush underscored social issues and how conservatives applied their philosophy–to questions affecting the moral fabric of our Nation. “We believe that all human life is precious and deserves to be protected,” he said. He also recalled the controversy over stem cell research and how he authorized new research while standing firm against tax dollars for the destruction of human life. And he put the Administration’s emphasis on moving drug addicts to “a culture of responsibility” into the column of moral issues.
To no one’s surprise, the President devoted the bulk of his remarks to foreign policy and the war on terror. Recalling 9-11 (“the worst attack in our history”) and characterizing the war against world terrorism as “the decisive ideological struggle of our time,” Bush ticked off the results of the U.S leadership in that struggle: The Taliban “was driven from power” in Afghanistan; 25 million Iraqis are free; and, as he prepares for battle over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) when it expires later this month, the President made a strong pitch for giving “intelligence officials the tools they need to uncover terrorist plots and prevent new attacks.”
To a standing ovation, Bush promised to “finish strong” and, while not referring to John McCain directly, told the crowd that “soon we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond.” McCain, of course, is still viewed with skepticism by many conservatives, and that he is being dubbed one who will “carry the conservative banner” by a President who many feel did not always do that had to raise some eyebrows.
But overall, the feeling at CPAC was that while Bush would sometimes disappoint, he would also “deliver” — as he of course in a major way when he named John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. And that may well the way he is remembered by conservatives — as one who did more good things than bad. Former State Rep. Bob Eberle of Washington State may have put it best: "He gave a good speech because he was truly comfortable here. But you have to wish he had spoken here at CPACs before now."