PURITY….David Bernstein repeats a common lament among conservatives these days about George Bush’s presidency:

“Compassionate conservatism” seems to have turned out to be a replay of the Nixon strategy of buying off every conceivable interest group that is capable of being bought off by a Republican administration, while using social issues and conservative rhetoric to appease the Republican masses. Nixon, at least, had the excuse of governing in an era when liberalism was at its apex, and with the constraints imposed by the other two branches of government, dominated by liberal Democrats. What is George Bush’s excuse?

Answer: there isn’t one. Like it or not, this is who George Bush is.

I think that both liberals and conservatives have made the mistake of convincing themselves that Bush is a hard right ideologue ? conservatives because they were so eager for a conservative president after eight years of Bill Clinton and liberals because it gives them a convenient object of hatred. But if you look a bit more closely you’ll see that he’s not.

It’s true that Bush is temperamentally conservative, and it’s also true that he sometimes does things that conservatives like: lowering taxes, for example, or invading Iraq. What’s more, he talks the conservative talk pretty well, and all of this has fooled conservatives (and many liberals) into thinking that he does what he does out of deep devotion to conservative principles.

But he doesn’t. I suspect that conservative eagerness for a conservative president has caused them to project their own views onto Bush, but Bernstein is right: Bush is just playing electoral politics. Tax cuts reward his rich contributors, invading Iraq was a crowd pleaser, the energy bill helped out his business pals, tariffs helped him with steel workers, the Medicare bill helps him with seniors, and the partial birth abortion bill helps him with the religious right. None of these things were truly driven by any kind of ideological purity.

This is why I’m much less certain than his supporters that Bush is planning to stay in Iraq. I doubt that he was truly motivated by the neocon grand plan or an unusual attraction to Middle East democracy as much as he was by a simple desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Now that that’s done, he’ll get out of Iraq without a second thought if it turns into a losing issue at the polls.

The good news for liberals in all this ? a bit of a thin reed, but still ? is that it just goes to show that plenty of liberal principles remain very popular, regardless of what the movement conservatives like to pretend, and George Bush and his advisors have tacitly acknowledged this by refusing to hew to the ideological line that the Heritage Foundation folks would like him to. They know it would be suicidal.

The bad news for liberals is that while ideological purity might not motivate Bush, winning does. He strikes me as the most single-minded party politician since at least LBJ, and he is bound and determined to win at all costs ? both personally and for the Republican party. He’s a fighter with a mean streak, and that means that 2004 is going to be one nasty election. Fasten your seat belts.