The first Democratic presidential debate was held this past week in South Carolina, with moderator Brian Williams taking note during the opening that the event, more than 18 months before the 2008 election, reflected an unprecedented early start to the campaign. What Williams didn’t point out was that it’s also unprecedented, at least in modern times, for any sitting president in his second term to be as fully a lame duck as George W. Bush obviously has become.
More than 600 painful days remain in Bush’s term, but his ability to set and pursue a policy agenda is totally gone, and his political power exists almost entirely in negative terms: he can block the Democrats, on everything from de-funding his tragic disaster of a war to giving the District of Columbia a vote in Congress, and he presumably can influence his party’s next presidential choice in a variety of subtle or overt ways. But that’s really it. Increasingly, news accounts include blind quotes from senior Republicans to the effect that this administration is incompetent, dishonest and counter-productive; the fear that Bush’s ineptitude and mendacity will have long-term consequences for their electoral prospects is now almost palpable.
And yet, it’s still all about the Bushes. The First Lady astounded the political world last week with her remark that no one “suffers more than their president and I do when we watch [news from Iraq]." And Old Bush, George the 41st, recently agreed with the notion that his son Jeb! (he hasn’t formally changed his name to add the exclamation mark yet, but it’s only a matter of time) won’t be on the 2008 presidential ballot because of “Bush Fatigue.”
But more than anyone, of course, it’s about the incumbent. Everybody, Democrats and Republicans, loyalists and Bush-haters, wants Alberto Gonzales out of the attorney general’s office. But George W. seems to dig in more with every call for Abu G’s dismissal. Then, of course, there’s Iraq, where the goalposts on “the surge” started moving almost as soon as they were set. And Bush continues to abuse the appointment power, sending up obviously unqualified individuals for high offices and trying to jam as many through as possible during congressional recesses.
Bush’s narcissism would be comical if it weren't so harmful for the country (often it's comical anyway), but at least it’s hurting exactly the people who should suffer most by it. I’m no fan of David Brooks, but he really nailed the Republicans’ predicament in his NY Times column today:
The Republicans suffered one unpleasant event in November 2006, and they are headed toward an even nastier one in 2008. The Democrats have opened up a wide advantage in party identification and are crushing the G.O.P. among voters under 30.
Moreover, there has been a clear shift, in poll after poll, away from Republican positions on social issues and on attitudes toward government. Democratic approaches are favored on almost all domestic, tax and fiscal issues, and even on foreign affairs.
The public, in short, wants change.
And yet the Republicans refuse to offer that. On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along. They privately believe the country needs new approaches to the war against Islamic extremism, but they don’t offer them. They try to block Democratic initiatives, but they don’t offer the country any new ways to think about the G.O.P.
They are like people quietly marching to their doom.
And at the presidential level, things are even worse. The party is blessed with a series of charismatic candidates who are not orthodox Republicans. But the pressures of the campaign are such that these candidates have had to repress anything that might make them interesting. Instead of offering something new, each of them has been going around pretending to be the second coming of George Allen — a bland, orthodox candidate who will not challenge any of the party’s customs or prejudices.
Though his analysis is on point, Brooks is too much of a hack to acknowledge the specifics: that it’s not George Allen the Republican candidates are trying to emulate, but George Bush they’re terrified to stray too far from.
The root of the problem is that his party has fully embraced a top-down authoritarian structure in which The Leader is infallible, and his belief system must not ever be transgressed against (Brooks rightly identifies Grover Norquist—though not by name, alas—as the Ideological Enforcer for Tax and Spending Policy, and Radical Cleric James Dobson as the Christatollah for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice) and there is no middle ground between absolute loyalty and outright treason.
So while Republicans might be “privately disgusted” with Bush–as I’m sure many are–they know that to directly challenge him means that the party apparatus will turn on them, with primary opponents, a cutoff of financial support, and endless hounding.
They’ve put themselves in this jam, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.