Amid all the self-inflicted disasters that befell the Bush White House last week, it was easy to miss the fact that the president had to cave to a group of disgruntled Republicans who had not made trouble for him before.
I don't mean the conservatives in revolt over Harriet Miers. I mean the moderates in revolt over Bush's suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, the law that mandates payment of prevailing wages on federally funded construction projects. In an apparent attempt to ensure that nobody rebuilding the Katrina-damaged Gulf Coast made much more than minimum wage, Bush had suspended the 1931 statute. But last week a group of 35 moderate Republican members of Congress -- hailing disproportionately from Northeast and Midwest states where building-trades unions still have political clout -- told Andy Card that they couldn't support Bush's edict. With a congressional vote on overturning Bush's order scheduled for next week, the president backed down.
Now, I haven't done the requisite Googling, but I don't think the words "Republican moderates" and "revolt" have appeared together in many sentences over the past four years. As the president and their Republican congressional colleagues merrily undermined the New Deal and environmental protections, threatened reproductive rights, and bungled a war about as badly as a war can be bungled, Republican moderates stayed massively mute. That they suddenly regained their voice last week not only attests to the president's weakness but also calls into question the notion that there's nothing wrong with the Republicans that rallying their base in a clear ideological conflict won't fix. That, of course, is the argument that relieved conservatives are advancing now that Bush has nominated Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. And it couldn't be farther from the truth.
In fact, both the Republican president and the Republican Congress are tanking in the polls because the public understands their ideology all too well. Bush's approval rating hovers at an anemic 40 percent, and he currently gets good marks from just 35 percent of independents. Up on Capitol Hill, the polls show that congressional Democrats have opened about a 10-point lead over their Republican counterparts in the public's preference, and that's not really because of anything -- except opposing the privatization of Social Security -- that the Democrats have done.
It's precisely that fight over Social Security that belies the notion that the Republicans will right themselves by continuing their decades-long rightward galumph. Suppose, for a moment, that the campaign to privatize America's social retirement program were still alive, that the legislation was poised for a vote in both houses. Then look at the headlines about private pensions going belly up, the magazine cover stories about the end of secure retirement in America. Can anyone seriously argue that in the current economy, this debate over first principles would be anything but a disaster for the Republicans? They dropped this campaign because it so clearly exposed the yawning gap between their ideological preferences and the actual needs of actual Americans.
And it's not just Social Security. With incomes stagnating, energy costs soaring and the war in Iraq taking an ever greater toll with an ever less discernible strategic objective, the Republicans this year have concentrated on the Terri Schiavo case; on their continual campaign to cut taxes chiefly on the rich; and now on their efforts to cut back on Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and the like to offset the costs of Katrina. Not surprisingly, a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that just 38 percent of respondents called the Republicans "in touch" -- a decline of 12 points since he asked that question in March.
But of course the Republicans are in touch. They're in touch with Grover Norquist's weekly conclave of right-wing groups, where all manner of ideological campaigns get hatched. They're in touch with their think tanks, which spent two decades developing an unworkable plan to privatize Social Security -- never mind that they finally rolled it out at the very moment that private-sector retirement plans were in collapse. They're so in touch with their base, Harriet Miers notwithstanding, that nearly everyone outside their base is abandoning them.
Which makes the Republican moderates understandably nervous. Life is unfair, and it's their seats, more than the more secure ones of their hard-right colleagues, that are being added to the Democrats' list of districts to contest in next year's elections. And who knows? Maybe courage, or judgment, is contagious. Having stood up to the president on Davis-Bacon and lived to tell the tale, they might just tell their colleagues who want to cut back on medical assistance to the poor to take a hike. Over in the Senate, they might even reject a Supreme Court nominee who could imperil a woman's right to reproductive choice. Because one thing is certain: Whatever ails the Republican Party, it's not that it's insufficiently right-wing.