While President George W. Bush used his Jan. 28 State of the Union address to make the case for war, he also found ways to hone his compassionate conservative credentials. Some of the initiatives he announced--new funding to combat AIDS and addiction--underscored his promise to be a "different kind" of Republican. But Bush also tended to his party's social conservative flock by promoting items on the Christian Right's wish list, from curbing abortions to funding faith-based organizations.
The President's attempt to balance the priorities of both social moderates and conservatives is a preview of the political tightrope he must walk as he approaches a 2004 reelection bid. Christian conservatives are a vital GOP constituency, and ensuring they turn out in full force could make the difference in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Michigan. But as Bush tries to stay in their good graces, he can't afford to alienate moderate suburbanites who backed him in 2000 but are deeply suspicious of any hard-Right social agenda. "[That] could put [him] on a collision course," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker.
The Right isn't making it any easier for the President. Christian conservatives turned out in droves in the midterm elections and delivered the Senate to the GOP by tipping races in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. With 2004 in mind, they are threatening to withhold enthusiastic support if Bush and the Republican Congress don't deliver a suitable Supreme Court justice and new restrictions on abortion--and that's just for starters. "We are a vital part of their coalition, and if they don't act, they will suffer for it," says Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation.
How will Bush repay the Religious Right without alienating the suburban center? The Administration's strategy is to champion a few "85% issues"--conservative priorities that have overwhelming public support, such as bans on human cloning and late-term abortion. The goal, according to White House political guru Karl Rove, is to attain "the practical and the possible" while avoiding more divisive issues.
Bush will also push Religious Right priorities that fit under his compassionate conservative umbrella. Case in point: Programs for the poor have been molded to appeal to Christian activists. For example, while Bush called for legislation that will allow faith-based organizations to compete for federal social services contracts, he has already implemented broad swaths of that policy through executive orders. And welfare reauthorization, scheduled for 2003, gives him another opportunity to appease the Right by earmarking $300 million for marriage promotion among the poor.
While such initiatives certainly help the President's standing with religious groups, the big enchilada of the conservative agenda is the Supreme Court. And the Right is demanding that Bush pick an unambiguous abortion opponent when the first vacancy occurs. "That would overshadow everything else," says Gary L. Bauer, president of the Campaign for Working Families. Bauer and other right-wing activists are cautioning that one potential appointee, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, would not pass muster. Their beef: As a Texas Supreme Court justice, he supported a decision in an abortion case that weakened parental notification rules.
As his State of the Union demonstrated, Bush understands that he needs to hang on to moderate support while keeping social conservatives happy. But the Right rhetoric and good intentions will no longer suffice, and the President's high-wire act just got a whole lot riskier. Already battered in Washington, big accounting firms now face new legal risks at home. On Jan. 21, a New York State appellate court lowered the bar that has kept outsiders from suing auditors for signing off on false financial statements. The decision allows New York perfume maker Houbigant Inc. to pursue fraud charges against Deloitte & Touche. From 1994 to 1998, Houbigant licensed its fragrances to Renaissance Cosmetics (RCI), relying on financials audited by Deloitte for proof that RCI was solvent. RCI went bankrupt in 1998. A lower court threw out Houbigant's suit, citing rules that require strong evidence of fraud before trial. But preliminary evidence isn't needed, the appellate court ruled, because Deloitte might be liable for fraud if it merely failed to investigate whether RCI's documents were accurate. Deloitte says its audit was sound. Legal experts say the opinion is a big boost for shareholders pursuing damages in big corporate collapses. The Administration will propose a broad expansion of Roth IRAs in its Feb. 3 budget, making them available to more upper-income families and lifting the annual contribution limits to as much as $7,500 from $3,000. Encouraging investments in Roth IRAs, where tax is paid on contributions but not on earnings, would be another significant step toward tax reform.