One State, One Party, One Leader

Bush and the GOP run into troubles--but serious political opposition is not one of them

In the weeks since Hurricane Katrina swamped Mississippi and destroyed New Orleans, the levees around the Bush White House have begun springing leaks of their own. Mike Brown was barely out the door when the legal troubles commenced. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted for illegal diversions of campaign finance money. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist came under SEC investigation for insider

trading in the sale of stock in the country's largest for-profit hospital chain, HCA, which was founded by his father. The name of kingpin GOP lobbyist and fixer Jack Abramoff began to pop up more regularly in press and blog accounts of other percolating congressional scandals. And Patrick Fitzgerald's seemingly stalled grand jury probe of the Valerie Plame/CIA leak roared back onto front pages when Judith Miller got out of jail and testified about her conversations with Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby. By the time this is published, Karl Rove will have made one last appearance before the Fitzgerald panel.

Just when it seemed that Bush/Rove's fabled control of the news cycle could not be despoiled much further, the president last week touched off an insurrection among conservative ideologues in the Congress and the national GOP by nominating White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Per the CBS/New York Times poll last week, the public view of GWB has never been harsher:

 

A growing number of Americans want U.S. troops to leave Iraq as soon as possible, rather than stay the course, and the highest percentage ever thinks the United States should have stayed out of Iraq.... President Bush's overall job approval rating has reached the lowest ever measured in this poll [37 percent], and evaluations of his handling of Iraq, the economy and even his signature issue, terrorism, are also at all-time lows. More Americans than at any time since he took office think he does not share their priorities.

The public's concerns affect their view of the state of the country. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say things in the United States are pretty seriously off on the wrong track--the highest number since CBS News started asking the question in 1983. Today, just 26 percent say things are going in the right direction.

Several moves last week attested to the growing panic inside the West Wing: the "major address on terrorism" that wasn't, the old White House spying case they dusted off, the Homeland Security memo that prompted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's subway terror warning. But the clearest signal of all may have been the Miers appointment itself. The big three dailies (NYT, LAT, WashPost) had just proclaimed her the "safe" choice of a weakened president when all hell broke loose. Miers was not so safe, it turned out, and the way Dick Cheney was hustled onto the Limbaugh show just hours after its announcement suggested that the White House knew from the start that she would be a problem with the party's ideologues.

Why spend political capital on appointing her when it's already in shorter-than-usual supply? Chances are that Karl Rove misjudged the magnitude of conservative reaction. But practically everyone has overlooked another pressing reason Bush might want to push through Miers at any cost. If you were the ringleader of a cast of boodlers and bunglers that would surely be the envy of the Harding administration, you might want a fervent loyalist who had been at your side through it all on the highest court in the land, too. It isn't a matter of Bush's personal safety from consequences so much as it's a question of safeguarding his party, his friends, and his legacy from maverick prosecutors and sundry other good-government types.

With Bush languishing at approval levels in the high 30s, maybe we can do away with a couple of common shibboleths--first, that he is in any sense a "popular" president, and second, that public views have much impact on the course of governance nowadays. As to public opinion, one of the most eloquent summaries of the Bush years is contained in the graphic below. Produced by the Pollkatz website, it charts Bush's approval ratings from day one. The story it tells is one of steady erosion, punctuated by upticks owing to three factors: the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

Yet notice how little difference the popular hostility toward Bush has made in his political successes to date. This is in part testament to the thoroughness and regimentation of the GOP army. They are serious people. They have worked hard to make Washington a one-party town, from the composition of House-Senate conference committees to the coerced staffing of K Street lobbying firms with a new generation of fringe-right true believers. All the same, you cannot explain the ease with which they've had their way strictly by their own mettle. It has required the capitulation of the Democratic Party. It's telling that the only serious political turbulence engendered by Bush's initiatives has arisen from within his own party--from moderates to his left on Social Security and the filibuster fight, and hardliners to his right on the Miers nomination.

At the hour of Bush's greatest vulnerability, there is, as usual, hardly a peep from Democrats. Every party apologist under the sun seems to think the Democrats are craftily letting Bush hang himself while they attend to the problem of refining their "message," a perennial puzzle complicated by many factors, chief among them that they have no message to refine. Ever since the 1984 reelection of Ronald Reagan, the Democrats have sought consciously to position themselves as less extreme, more sensible exemplars of the same values and goals as Republicans. That way lay the serious political money--and, they convinced themselves, the hearts of swing voters. But if "we're like them, only less" has proven repeatedly to be a lousy electoral draw, the party shows no sign of swerving from it. Hillary Clinton, an archetypal cynic and "centrist" who is as divisive in her own way as George W. Bush, is everyone's frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination. The troublesome Howard Dean is effectively silenced. And the party intelligentsia, with the blessing of the Clintons, is still busy admonishing anyone who will listen to stay the course--now is no time to move left! Just last week a fresh screed on the subject was excreted by two old Friends of Bill, Elaine Kamarck and William Galston.

This tune does not change. No matter how badly they get clobbered, it is never time for the Democrats to tilt left on pocketbook issues in the view of party captains and, more important, party funders. The Democrats' money people, like the Republicans', are drawn mostly from the ranks of the less than 1 percent of the population that donates over 80 percent of total campaign contributions. Their differences with each other are slight compared to the differences between the 1-percenters and everyone else. The vast majority of the people whose money picks our political candidates and drives our government are in accord about the shape of the future they want: free trade, modest-to-minimal central government, rollbacks in any spending programs that redistribute income downward, and a continuing decline in the living standards of most Americans as world wage markets equalize. So the Democrats are left to sell themselves on a margin of difference that looks, and usually is, fairly trivial--at least until a genuine radical like Bush rises to power. And when he does, apparently, they are so far out of fighting trim that they fail to wage battles they could win even in the absence of any new ideas, such as the scandals stemming from cronyism and sheer incompetence in Bush's circle.

No matter how evil or ingenious you suppose the Republican brain trust to be, in the end they have our wondrously inert democratic institutions to thank for much of their operating room. It's no great hardship to flout public will and public interest consistently when the watchdogs of the press spend most of their time curled up in your lap, and there is no opposition party to rally foes or pose compelling alternatives. Certainly the Bush gang has exploited this vacuum to hell and back, but they did not create it. The system was broken when they got there, and it will still be broken when they're gone.

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