October 22, 2005
Breaking Down the Breakdown

By David M. Shribman

So the White House has the blues. These things happen. In the course of a presidency there are down moments -- Bill Clinton had several of them, two of them lasting about a year each -- but for students of politics there are no down times. Down moments make for terrific insights into a president, his character and the country.

This one is particularly rich, coming as it does in a particularly unusual presidency, full of threats of terror, two wars, an inscrutable economy and a conservative ascendancy that has only two antecedents in a century, the Republican eras of the 1920s and 1980s. (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the first decade of the 20th century don't count, at least in my reckoning. I'm sure we'll argue through e-mail all day.)

What's most remarkable about this period -- maybe not exactly a period, consisting as it does of only these past several weeks -- is the fissures that the strains on the president have revealed.

Indeed, the strains on the presidency reveal strains within the Republican coalition and the conservative movement. Together they tell us a lot about the nature of the Bush presidency, about the ever-changing nature of the conservative movement and about the country.

Because even the most loyal Republican must acknowledge this autumn that the president is facing deep divisions right now, and the fascinating thing about them is that there are lots of divisions and, within them, there are shifting rosters of combatants. Ronald Reagan didn't have this problem, nor did Calvin Coolidge or, through most of his administration, Herbert Hoover.

But President Bush's father, to a far lesser extent, did. Here's a breakdown of how things are breaking down:

The Supreme Court. You could think of Republicans being broken into two sides on the president's latest nomination for the high court. You could go ahead and name one side Team Miers and the other Team Roberts. The Miers side is the emotional side of the movement, full of the people who have a personal, emotional, mystical and unshakable loyalty to George W. Bush. The Roberts side is the rational side of the movement, full of people whose conservatism is shorn of sentimentality. Because this is not a sentimental time, and because conservatives have waited for so long, perhaps even a half-century, for supremacy on the Supreme Court, the president's nomination is in real trouble.

Priorities. Before this was the year to reshape the Supreme Court, this was the year to recast Social Security -- or at least the White House made it seem. From coast to coast, no senior center or assisted-living complex was safe as the president and his Cabinet surrogates spread out to spread the word that the nation's most revered social-welfare program was spread too thin. There breathes not a soul today who thinks that an overhaul of Social Security is even plausible. (Give the strategists of the administration credit, however. When their top priority crashes and burns, it does so quietly, in the desert of inattention. When the Clintons suffered a similar defeat, with health care, the flames that scorched the White House burned on for years.)

Principles of government. This administration and (now I am going to make the Democrats angry, but only because they have a guilty conscience) the last one both believed in smaller government. Both adopted the notion (and the quote is from Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan) that the era of big government was over. But the botched reaction to Hurricane Katrina ended all that, though the costly war in Iraq surely contributed, too.

Now we face the prospect of big government in a big way in the Mississippi Delta, despite the howls of conservatives who, sitting outside the White House and thus not vulnerable to the demands for help from the South, think that the antediluvian poverty of Louisiana and Mississippi came not from too little government "help" but from too much.

Going native. All presidents since Jimmy Carter have been outsiders, at least in their own mind. (The one exception may have been President Bush's father, who nonetheless prattled on in an implausible populist way about pork rinds and was said to have left his clock radio tuned to WMZQ, Washington's country-music station.)

Conservatives have long been torn between those who mastered the art of government but wanted less of it and those who had contempt for it, its trappings, its sense of imperial self-importance, and its apparent inability ever to fade away the way that Marxists thought capitalism would.

This is where Rep. Tom DeLay's antics and his legal problems come into play. He went to Washington as an exterminator and stayed as a colonizer. Before he was done (and he is almost certainly done for if not exactly done), he distributed millions among scores of Republican members of Congress. The lawmakers took the money. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has taken issue with the way Republicans have gone native in the nation's capital. At the heart of this fissure is a struggle for the identity of capital conservatives in the new century.

Iraq. This is the most potent four-letter word in the political lexicon today. The neocons wanted this war a year before it began; other conservatives thought it misguided and, in a way, misleading.

Saddam Hussein is on trial but so, too, is the Bush administration. This month's USAToday/CNN Poll taken by the Gallup Organization shows that nearly three Americans in five disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job. Increasingly he is positioned as the president who took America into Iraq, not the president who took America out of the fear and confusion of Sept. 11.

It has to be said, however, that Republicans are sticking with their man. The Gallup survey showed that 84 percent of Republicans continue to support him. That doesn't mean there aren't cracks in the fortress. There are, as we have seen. How, and whether, the president seeks to patch them will be the story of the rest of his administration -- and of his legacy.

Copyright 2005 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman

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