DEPT. OF LAME DUCKS
Base to Bush: It's Over
Let's say you're a Republican president, a bit more than midway through your second term. You're scrambling to salvage what you can of a deeply unpopular war, you're facing a line of subpoenas from Democrats in Congress and your poll ratings are in the basement. What do you do?
You estrange the very Republicans whose backing you need the most.
That's precisely what President Bush has managed to accomplish during the two big political developments of recent weeks: the commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence and the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform. But the president's problems with the GOP base go beyond those awkward headlines. Republicans aren't mad at Bush for the same reasons that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the devotees of MoveOn.org are; there's no new anti-Bush consensus among left and right. No, conservatives are unhappy because the president allied himself with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) over an immigration deal that leaned too far toward amnesty for illegal immigrants. They're unhappy because Bush has shown little interest in fiscal responsibility and limited government. And they're unhappy, above all, because he hasn't won the war in Iraq.
All of this has left Republicans saying, at least among themselves, something blunt and devastating: It's over.
"Bush fatigue has set in," declares one plugged-in GOP activist.
"We're ready for a new president," says a former state Republican Party official in the South.
"There was affection," opines a conservative strategist based well beyond the Beltway, "but now they're in divorce court."
The problem is there for anyone to see: Bush's approval ratings could not have collapsed to 30 percent unless a lot of his base deserted him. In a number of recent polls, his job-approval rating among Republicans has been in the low- to mid-60 percent range. "Being under 70 percent of your own party, when you're president, is a pretty weak performance," notes Republican pollster David Winston. "He should be closer to, if not over, 90 percent."
Despite all this, the president has behaved in recent weeks like a man with political capital to burn. On immigration reform, he defied the GOP base as if his well of support were so deep that he could draw out as much of it as he liked. He also gave himself the worst of all worlds in the case of Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff. By commuting Libby's prison sentence -- as opposed to pardoning him outright -- for perjuring himself to CIA leak investigators, Bush outraged his Democratic opposition while leaving his base vaguely disappointed.
The president knew that Libby's most ardent partisans -- including the most powerful vice president in U.S. history -- opposed his spending even one night in jail. But for the base writ large, the case wasn't about Libby. It was about the politics of the Iraq war. A lot of conservatives had hoped for a full pardon because they wanted a strong White House statement that the CIA leak investigation had spun out of control, that it had grown from a set of crazy political circumstances and that the whole mad imbroglio should never have gotten as far as it did.
In short, they wanted something like the impassioned statement President George H.W. Bush issued in December 1992, when he pardoned former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams and three other participants in the Iran-contra affair. (Abrams, by the way, is now a deputy national security adviser.) Back then, Bush said that patriotism was the "common denominator of their motivation." The president used the pardons as an opportunity to denounce what he called "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences."
In the Libby case, there were no ringing declarations. Instead, this President Bush came up with a cramped, limited statement, commuting Libby's jail term while keeping (at least for now) his conviction, a $250,000 fine that he has already paid and two years of probation. One didn't have to read too far between the lines to guess that the president believes Libby to be guilty of perjury; just for good measure, Bush threw in some good words for Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The problem, the president said, wasn't that Fitzgerald had gone on a three-year fishing expedition that netted only Libby, or that the Iraq war's foes were using the CIA leak case to rehash their grievances against the original decision to invade; rather, the problem was simply that U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton's sentence was "excessive."