WASHINGTON (CNN) – On Friday, in the midst of a campaign year defined by President Bush’s potential impact on his party’s political fortunes, he offered conservatives a defiant account of his historical legacy – and a plea to rally behind the Republican nominee, and hold on to the White House.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Bush pointed to his decisions on a host of controversial issues that have defined his presidency – from tax cuts and judicial nominees and stem cell research - and described their outcome in defiant language that has become familiar in recent months.
“Critics had a different view…. We stood our ground,” he said repeatedly. “On these issues, both sides have made their case. The results are in. And they are proving us right.”
Friday marked the president’s first – and final – visit to CPAC since he arrived in the White House.
He was here this morning with an eye towards the history books, and his legacy – not just as leader of the nation, but standard-bearer of the conservative movement. And this annual gathering, which draws thousands of activists from across the country, was the ideal venue to make his case.
Bush has had a complex relationship with the conservative base. They embraced his presidential candidacy early, and were key footsoldiers in both his White House runs.
While his approval rating from the public at large has remained mired in the low 30s for much of his second term, conservatives have consistently given him far higher marks in the same opinion polls.
But some of these ideological partners have been unhappy with decisions by his administration on federal spending, and its failure to push harder to appoint conservative judges, among other policy disagreements. Other activists at CPAC this week have gone further in recent months, saying publicly that in their view, the president is not a conservative at all.
The president received an enthusiastic reception from the crowd this morning - but some did not join his supporters in standing ovations. A few in the audience sat impassively throughout his address, and did not applaud at all.
At last year’s CPAC – the final meting before this year’s Republican primaries – White House hopefuls barely mentioned its current occupant, focusing instead on the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
This year, that pattern has continued through the GOP’s primary season presidential debates, where his name is rarely referenced, and Reagan’s is frequently invoked.
Some Republican presidential candidates, like former White House contender Mitt Romney, have been publicly equivocal about some aspects of the president’s term in office. Others, like Mike Huckabee – who accused the administration of an “arrogant bunker mentality” in its foreign policy decisions - have been openly critical.
GOP frontrunner John McCain – who has had his own complicated relationship with President Bush - is tied, as no other candidate in the race, to the defining issue of Bush’s presidency, the war in Iraq. And Democrats will be looking to make the fall election, in part, a referendum on his support for that war.
The president did not mention McCain directly on Friday, but told the crowd that, “soon we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond. The stakes in November are high. Prosperity and peace are in the balance.”
And he described the state of the Iraq conflict in language that – unlike the rest of his address – asked listeners to look forward, not back, for vindication of the decision. “We refused to yield when the going got tough,” said Bush. And when the history of our actions is written, it will show that we were right.”
– CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand