Yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook piece by National Review’s Byron York made it all but official: the GOP’s conservative base, including its opinion leaders, has largely given up on George W. Bush’s presidency.
York’s analysis identifies three specific reasons for this development: Bush’s advocacy of an approach to immigration reform that has deeply offended conservatives; his self-contradictory handling of the Scooter Libby saga; and perhaps most of all, his botching of Iraq. Of everything York says, this last point is the most interesting, indicating conservative acknowledgment that the “surge” is failing, and that the Right will no longer embrace it as a reflection of its own thinking on Iraq. Though York doesn’t go into this, we may be about to experience an especially ironic political moment this week, when John McCain returns from a trip to Iraq, and could conspicuously part company with the administration’s strategy there. Even though McCain’s own presidential campaign has become road-kill during the recent conservative rebellion against Bush, his original support for the “surge” was widely interpreted as validating a defiant conservative “tilt” by Bush on Iraq. If McCain bails on the “surge” now, many Republicans will follow him in reassuming a position to the right of the administration on Iraq.
In terms of the impact on Bush of a bailing base, York offers this comment:
So now the president has 18 months left in office, and they won’t be quiet ones. Absent the committed backing of his party, he will be forced to exercise power based not on his political clout but rather on the authority the Constitution gives the office of the president: He is commander in chief. He can veto bills. He can issue pardons. And that’s about it.
Well, some of us have thought “that’s about it” in terms of Bush’s power ever since the autumn of 2005, when the Katrina fiasco and growing signs of futility in Iraq decisively turned independent voters against Bush, while permanently destroying, across the board, the Bush-Rove reputation for political wizardry, built up by the 2004 re-election campaign. And we’ve learned since then that Bush’s constitutional prerogatives are indeed formidable in terms of enabling him to stubbornly pursue wildly unpopular policies. Sure, “base” support for the “surge” temporarily lifted Bush’s approval ratings into the tepid 40s range after the 2006 elections, but it’s pretty clear the White House has declared final independence from accountability to public opinion of any sort.
The real impact of the conservative defection from support for Bush is that it will further enable 2008 GOP presidential candidates to distance themselves from the incumbent’s record, as part of a desperate effort to make the election something, anything, other than a referendum on the previous eight years. It’s more essential than ever for Democrats to lash the GOP to the mast of Bush’s record, and to make it clear that the “change” GOP candidates offer from the status quo is if possible even more irresponsible and extremist than the disastrous path blazed by W.