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How the Republicans Let It Slip Away

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Watching the Republicans floundering over the past week, I can't help thinking of a school of beached whales. The leviathans of the GOP have boldly swum themselves onto this patch of dry sand, and it won't be easy for them to get back to open ocean.

The Republicans come to their present troubles from different directions: President Bush thought he was making a safe, pragmatic choice in nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, but this soulless maneuver enraged the party's right wing and set it on a fratricidal binge. Tom DeLay thought he was ramrodding a permanent Republican government, but he managed to get himself indicted and, well before that calamity, had angered House Republicans who concluded that "The Hammer's" leadership style was marching them off a cliff. Looming over all these little problems is the crucible of Iraq.

What's interesting is that most of these wounds are self-inflicted. They draw a picture of a party that, for all its seeming dominance, isn't prepared to be the nation's governing party. The hard right, which is the soul of the modern GOP, would rather be ideologically pure than successful. Governing requires making compromises and getting your hands dirty, but the conservative purists disdain those qualities. They swim for that beach with a fiercely misguided determination, and they demand that the other whales accompany them.

The bickering over the Miers nomination epitomizes the right's refusal to assume the role of a majoritarian governing party. The awkward fact for conservatives is that the American public doesn't agree with them on abortion rights. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late August found 54 percent describing themselves as pro-choice and only 38 percent as pro-life, roughly the same percentages as a decade ago.

That's the political reality that Bush has been trying to finesse with his nominations of John Roberts and Miers. That's why he said in the 2000 primary campaign that he wouldn't impose any litmus test (when other Republicans were demanding one) and would instead focus on a nominee's character and judicial philosophy. The realist in Bush understands that he can't easily force a nominee who is openly antiabortion on a country where a solid majority disagrees.

Bush has been successful when he has connected with the American center. Political scientist Gary C. Jacobson notes that after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush "enjoyed the longest stretch of approval ratings above 60 percent of any president in 40 years." In that post-Sept. 11 period, when Bush was fulfilling his campaign promise to be "a uniter, not a divider," his approval rating among Democrats soared to an astounding 81 percent.

Bush and the Republicans had a chance after 2004 to become the country's natural governing party. They controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. The Democrats were in utter disarray, leaderless and idea-less. When Bush took the podium in January to deliver his soaring second inaugural address, the future seemed to belong to the Republicans.

Bush squandered this opportunity by falling into the trap that has snared the modern GOP -- of playing to the base rather than to the nation. The Republicans behave as if the country agrees with them on issues, when that demonstrably isn't so. The country doesn't agree about Social Security, doesn't agree about the ethical issues that were dramatized by the torment of Terri Schiavo, doesn't agree about abortion. Yet, in a spirit of blind partisanship, House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced last year that bills would reach the floor only if "the majority of the majority" supported them. That notion of governing from the hard right was a recipe for failure.

What you sense now, as conservative and moderate Republicans alike take potshots at their president, is that the GOP is entering the post-Bush era. A war of succession has begun, cloaked in a war of principles. The cruelest aspect of Bush's predicament is that the conservatives are treating him with the same disdain they showed his father. What a denouement to the West Wing Oedipal drama: A son who did everything he could to avoid his father's humiliation by the conservative wing of the party is now under attack by the right himself.

Principles are a fine thing, but a narrow, partisan definition of principle has led the Republicans to a dead end. Their inability to transcend their base and speak to the country as a whole is now painfully obvious. Like the Democrats in their years of decline, they are screaming at each other -- not realizing how far they have drifted from the mid-channel markers that have always led to open waters and defined success in American politics.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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