Page 2 of 2   <      

Base to Bush: It's Over

(China Photos - Getty Images)

For many conservatives, it was exactly the wrong way to approach the problem.

"We specifically don't want an executive to re-try a case and decide he knows better than the judge or jury," says Vin Weber, a sometime White House adviser. "We want the executive to take a broader national interest into account -- something that needs to be taken into account that a judge or jury couldn't properly take into account."

In other words, if Bush had pardoned Libby because the CIA leak probe never should have happened, fine. But don't play judge, Mr. President -- that's not your branch.

So the commutation won no more than tepid approval from the base. And it certainly didn't offset the terrible damage the president did to himself during the immigration debate by backing a bill that would have put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Many conservatives are still hopping mad over the president's description of the bill's opponents as people who "don't want to do what's right for America." Things got so bad that a top White House aide recently tried to reassure a group of conservative journalists that the president isn't out of touch. "He gets it," the aide said. "He gets it." But he didn't get it enough to avoid a major defeat -- one that probably sounded the official death knell to Bush's attempts to turn his brand of compassionate conservatism into law.

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.

The deterioration of the base will be particularly critical when it comes to the Iraq war. September will bring the most important moment of the president's second term, when Gen. David H. Petraeus is set to report to Congress on progress in Iraq, thereby starting an intense and protracted debate over funding and withdrawal timetables. If Bush cannot convince conservatives who are already unhappy with him about domestic issues that his Iraq plan is working, he'll see Republicans in Congress -- and on the presidential campaign trail -- peel away. That would put him in danger of losing control of the war.

But the danger is even greater than that. In a June 25 speech that was widely interpreted as a warning shot at the White House, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, one of the most respected Republican voices on foreign affairs, did more than urge the president to adopt a new policy toward Iraq. He also outlined a dire scenario in which a lame-duck president, a failing Iraq policy and an intensely political atmosphere might come together to mean that nobody will control the war. "A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq," he said. "Little nuance or bipartisanship will be possible if the Iraq debate plays out during a contentious national election that will determine control of the White House and Congress." And the president's position wasn't helped when Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, another old-guard Republican, expressed a similar view last week.

On the domestic front, the president almost certainly won't be able to get much of anything done. But he will be able to stop Democratic initiatives. And all signs indicate that he will use his veto pen to become, from the GOP base's perspective, a better-late-than-never convert to the cause of fiscal responsibility after six years of reckless deficit spending. "That's probably where he'll have the most impact," says Winston, the GOP pollster. "Appropriations bills are coming through, and he'll have his shots at them."

If Bush is energetic with his vetoes, he might see a bit more enthusiasm from the base. It's always good to have an enemy, after all. "These days, the only time he gets support is when Democrats attack him," says one Washington-based GOP strategist. But that will take him only so far. George W. Bush's time to get big things done has passed. Even his most ardent fans, the ones who wish him the best, are looking forward to Jan. 20, 2009.

Byron York is National Review's White House correspondent and the author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy."

<       2

© 2007 The Washington Post Company