Magazine article The American Prospect

Bush Burning

Magazine article The American Prospect

Bush Burning

Article excerpt

NOW IS THE SUMMER OF W.'s discontent. It's not just Senator James Jeffords's defection from the Republican Party or the Democrats' newfound ability to control the agenda. It's not just W.'s downward swoosh in the polls to a depth that only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton plumbed this early in their terms. Nor is it just that the Dems will use the patients-rights bill and the prescription-drug benefit to peel Republican congressional support away from the president.

What should be more troubling to the Bushmen is that their own pet issues--never mind the Democrats'--seem to be driving a wedge deep into their own party. Not a week goes by without some administration proposal for offshore oil drilling or coal mining in national monuments now going down to defeat at the hands of Democrats and about a quarter to a third of House Republicans. And no Democratic consultant could have devised a better issue to split Republican moderates from movement conservatives than that of stem cell research.

The fundamental mystery of the Bush administration is how it so grievously misread--and continues to misread--the political landscape. After all, at no point during the 2000 election campaign did W.'s economic program poll as well as A1 Gore's. On election day, W. racked up a negative-540,000-vote plurality. Yet he stormed into office as though he were Ronald Reagan in 1981.

In fact, not only is W. no Ronald Reagan, but 2001 is no 1981. Reagan's first year in office was a genuine political watershed. Inflation had reached a post-World War II high during the Carter years; and beginning with California's Proposition 13 in 1978, a tax revolt had been sweeping the states for several years before the 1980 election. The 1980 vote marked a clear repudiation of Carter's timorous centrism, and a whole stratum of socially conservative Democrats--the Reagan Democrats--flocked into the Republican column. Reagan also swept so many Republican Senate candidates into office that the Democrats lost control of that house for the first time since 1954. When his program came before Congress in 1981, large numbers of Democrats felt compelled to support it, despite their reservations that it was voodoo economics, as Bush pere had aptly described it.

Bush the younger, however, took office at a very different moment. Clintonism was plainly popular, and even so flawed a messenger as Al Gore was able to secure a popular-vote plurality by espousing it. Cutting taxes ranked well below investing public funds in schools and medical care in poll after poll. Democrats, not Republicans, picked up seats in the Senate last November. The exit polls revealed no such animal as a Bush Democrat. And while some particularly craven--or greedy--congressional Democrats went along with W.'s tax cut, they've not come to his assistance on other major issues.

W. does share some of Reagan's personal qualities. Problem is, they're the negative ones. Like Reagan, W. is--and is perceived as--distanced from the details of governing. He's a delegator, a vacation taker, an accomplished napper. (Of course, Reagan was 70 when he became president, and W. just 54. The sight of Dick Cheney burning the midnight oil while in intensive care, even as W. snoozes, is not the most reassuring image of our tax dollars in action.) But Reagan was also a big-picture guy with a clear (if Manichaean) world view, an affable manner, and a genuine (if studied) air of patriarchal authority. W. seems as lost in the big picture as he is in the small and has no worldview to speak of--save a nervous provincialism. When it comes to authority and affability, he increasingly comes off as an uptight and querulous version of Mr. Rogers.

Reagan was also, in Hendrik Hertzberg's memorable phrase, a "closet tolerant"--giving lip service to the Christian right of his time but at home in a more cosmopolitan world than the right would countenance. He headed a party, moreover, that still had vestiges of a moderate wing. …

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