By Byron York
Sunday, July 8, 2007
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."
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."