While most pundit types are reading the tea leaves of last week's state and local elections and jumping to some frankly dubious conclusions, Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist has perhaps the most perceptive take on just why Bush's lame-duck-ness is now all but assured:
Under Bush in the U.S... we have moved toward something that looks a lot more like parliamentary government, in which the ruling party moves with a single voice and when it fails to do so, the whole order is at risk. If [Tony] Blair is more national leader than party leader, Bush has styled himself as much more the leader of an ideologically unified majority party than any American president in decades, including those such as LBJ who had solid congressional majorities. He is the first president, for example, to handpick the Senate majority leader.
The budget reconciliation process that broke down yesterday in both Houses is very much a product of that reform impulse. Designed in 1974 to force congressional committees to make big choices about taxes and entitlement spending, it has been used by presidents Reagan in 1981 and Clinton in 1993 to force dramatic reorderings of priorities that would have been impossible earlier. Today the process has been egregiously abused, simply to avoid the rule of unlimited debate and 60 votes for cloture in the Senate. The more that key choices such as oil drilling in ANWR, which go well beyond the budget, are moved through this one-party process, the more "parliamentary" our system becomes.
A great deal of Bush/Rove/DeLay's success over the past five years has come from pushing through party-line votes as if they were confidence votes in a parliamentary system. Many of the votes pushed through with massive arm-twisting and unprecedented procedures, such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2003 tax bill, were sold on the basis that the president needs the victory. You may not think this is good policy, wavering Republicans were told, but if the president wins, he gets reelected and we all win; we lose, and our whole edifice of power collapses.
And just as in a parliamentary system, that works until it stops working. And when it stops working, the government is finished. After reelection, the confidence vote argument lost some steam. Seeing Bush as a burden in 2006 rather than an asset for reelection, it loses still more. Having chosen to govern as a party, rather than national, leader, Bush has few of the resources that other presidents have had to salvage themselves, and the same goes for the Republican leadership in Congress.
For those of us who have marveled at how the Republican congressional majorities have all but ceded the legislature's once-cherished institutional prerogatives to their executive branch co-partisans, the schism to which Schmitt refers was a welcome sight. The prospect of further cleavages, over issues from torture of enemy combatants to entitlements and the KulturKampf Krew wish list, is even more pleasant. It also casts a different light on this recent, much-discussed piece by Newsweek's Howard Fineman about how Democrats have suddenly begun to practice a Beltway variant on the right-wing art of "wedge politics."
It seems to me that we're back to something like the political stalemate of the late 1990s, with public disdain for the ruling party and a slew of scandals essentially blocking the right-wing agenda. The Democrats have a year to make their case for governing; of course, they also have a year to screw it up again. Both parties have the opportunity to seize the mantle of new ideas; one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently in this vein actually comes from the right-wing Weekly Standard, which argues that Republicans will need to embrace a markedly different economic agenda if they are to retain power despite their leaders' scandal entanglements and the evident exhaustion of the Bush administration.
[E]ven the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program--Bush's vision of an "ownership society," the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan--have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It's not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands--it's that there's shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.
Given this political landscape, Republicans face three obvious options. The first is to continue to muddle along with the domestic policy that produced the multi-trillion-dollar Medicaid drug benefit, three years of bloated appropriations bills, and the failed push for private retirement accounts, and hope that social issues and national security concerns are enough to keep the party's majority afloat. A second option is to attempt a return to a purer, more fiscally austere faith, even if it means ceding political power, and wait for the looming entitlement crisis to convince Americans of the wisdom of repealing the New Deal.
The third possibility--and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole--would be to take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn't mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives--individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom--seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can't have an "ownership society" in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family--the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security--at the heart of the GOP agenda.
Take out the unapologetic partisanship (which is unfortunately characteristic of the whole piece) and the list of ideas that follow--financial support, through tax breaks and incentives, for married couples with children; market-friendly reform of how health care is provided; wage subsidies for the working poor (!)--is very simiilar to the issues progressives should be thinking through as well. The article also concedes perhaps the key point of the whole progressive enterprise at this time: "over the past few decades, returns to capital have escalated while returns to labor have declined, and... the result has been increasing economic insecurity for members of the working and middle classes."
It even goes on to implicitly make the connection between this widespread and increasing economic insecurity and all those social woes Republicans are forever going on about--illegitimacy, divorce, and the rest. This is of pivotal importance; while the right retains its idyllic conception of the 1950s as a time of strong families with strong values, its tribunes never quite mention that strong unions and activist government pursuing an explicit equity agenda had more than a little to do with that, too. (Honesty requires us, in turn, to concede that the global economic situation--specifically, that all our previous and subsequent rivals, both as producers and as markets, were still rebuilding from the war--also played a big part; but that's another story for another day.)
I personally don't think you can get the Hair Club for Growth or the other free-market fundamentalists to support this kind of Republican agenda; the question is whether Democrats can get to that high ground first and prove its fertility.