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