In New York right now the sun is soft, not searing; the humidity just high enough that you feel like you’re walking through pleasantly warm gelatin as you walk along the streets. A good time for a general political overview, I say. Let’s start with the Bushes.
President Bush is under pressure from various parts of his constituency, but there is little sign he’s noticed. Among conservatives there is rising frustration over immigration, government spending and the gradual, slow-mo, day-by-day redefining of what modern conservatism is and what the Republican Party stands for that has taken place during the Bush presidency. That is in fact the big, largely unspoken fact of the Bush presidency.
This will be argued over and may be at least partially resolved in 2007 and 2008, as individual Republicans choose which Republican contenders for the presidency to back. It will be an orderly process, because Republicans are orderly people. But if Republicans lose the presidency in 2008, things will get less polite. There will be an intraparty fight over what to do about America’s borders, what to do about dramatically rising spending, what to do about the growth of government, how or if to lower deficits, what path to take on taxes, where we are going in foreign affairs. That’s how Republicans will spend the Hillary Clinton years if we get the Hillary Clinton years: in a great big donnybrook.
But while Republicans are on the verge of a great struggle, the president continues to be supported and appreciated among the Republican base. I have talked to all kinds of Republicans this summer, and for all their questioning, the base is his.
How could this be? How could the reason for a coming party battle—George W. Bush himself—be the continuing object of unified party support?
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There are many reasons. In a 50-50 nation, you back your guy. Tepid support won’t do. If it weren’t for Mr. Bush you’d have John Kerry, or some other avatar of a party led by a man, Howard Dean, who now freely admits his party doesn’t know what it stands for. Or rather, as he puts it, the Democratic Party needs “a message.” Well yes. They also need clear belief, a known philosophy, and a reason for being.
At any rate, this is no time for ambivalence, confusion and weak national leadership. Mr. Bush is a vivid figure who summons vivid reactions. Republicans may not always agree with his decisions, but they think they understand his thinking: In a time of high stakes and war you don’t spend your political capital on secondary items like spending, which can always be revisited.
As for immigration, Mr. Bush and Karl Rove are not up against a tougher Democratic Party. They believe what Democratic political professionals believe: that he who owns the Latino vote owns the future. Washington’s bipartisan establishment attitude toward immigration is: Don’t upset Mexican-Americans. This is a dangerous game. It only works as long as it works. If a group of young Arab terrorists crosses the border illegally and takes out Chicago with a suitcase bomb, Mexican-Americans will be exactly as angry as every other American group, and will vote to fire those in power.
Mr. Bush as a person, as an individual, is as attractive to Republicans as he is unattractive to Democrats. Republicans like him because he seems like a normal guy—business, family, sports, Top 40 on the iPod. Democrats hate him for this—how common, how plebian; he’d have more elevated tastes if he were a more elevated man. Republicans like him for the one way in which he is obviously extraordinary: When he says it he means it, and if he promises it he’ll do it. Democrats see this as evidence of derangement: He doesn’t change his mind because he thinks he’s God’s other son, and in any case he can’t think clearly enough to change his mind. Republicans see it more this way: As a West Point official said to me in passing, “He’s got two of ’em.”
Democrats try to tag Mr. Bush as lazy, but that will never work. He seems like an activist who’s actively engaged. Every time cable news does a “Bush Is on Vacation in Crawford” headline they’re forced to follow it with a clip of the speech Mr. Bush just made. In any case liberals are always trying to call Republican presidents lazy. They did it with Eisenhower and Reagan too. It never helps the liberal cause. They don’t know half the country would be relieved to have a lazy president as he’d do less and make us less nervous.
And there is Iraq. Republicans on the ground do not believe Mr. Bush & Co. lied to get us into war. They believe he had reason to believe what he believed, and to move. Saddam had had weapons of mass destruction and used them on the Kurds. It wasn’t a huge leap to think he still had them, and would use them again. In any case the die is cast. Republicans are practical. They will continue to back Iraq as long as they think victory (the creation of a stable, nonterrorist Iraqi government) is achievable. If they come to think it’s not, they’ll peel off until they’re gone.
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But I think Mr. Bush’s continued popularity with his base, and actually with a lot of Americans who don’t quite say this to themselves, is the bookend effect.
In the national imagination Mr. Bush’s presidency started on the day of 9/11/01. After a few unsure hours he did what he had to do. I’m a loving man but I’ve got a job to do. . . . I can hear you, and soon the people who knocked down these buildings will hear you. . . . Al Qaeda is to terrorism what the Mafia is to organized crime.
We’ve been though a lot since then—code red and code orange, war and rumors of war, Homeland Security, reports of hidden terror cells, attacks on Spain and London. And yet—the other bookend: For all the fear and even terror of those days four years ago, for all the reports of Mideastern-looking men videotaping structures across America, for all the talk of plastic sheeting and fill-the-house-with-enough-water-for-three-months—for all that, America has not been attacked on its soil again. We have not been airplaned, nuked, bio’d or suitcase bombed.
That’s the otherbook end. It started with terror and has ended with no-terror-since.
That’s a big reason his base is still with him, and that’s why a lot of Americans, when you come right down to it, are with him.
Those are the bookends. And the great question of course is: Will the second bookend hold? Every fact of our domestic political future rests on the answer to that.
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A word on Mrs. Bush. Everyone knows she is popular and admired, but I don’t think it’s been sufficiently noted that Laura Bush, in almost five years as first lady, has never made a mistake. She has not struck a false note or made a single misstep. This is remarkable. And our country has never seen anything like it.
Most first ladies five years in have made themselves look foolish at some point, or have been made to look foolish. Jackie Kennedy was the focus of sniping over her taste for luxury and long vacations, and was not loved until she was a widow. Lady Bird Johnson, with her well meaning, slightly clueless earnestness, was regularly lampooned. I remember someone doing an imitation of her in which she took the stage and introduced “My two semi-beautiful daughters.” No one much liked the tightly wound Rosalyn Carter, and no one much disliked her. Nancy Reagan was reviled as a Hollywood airhead until she was reviled as a secret Machiavellian. Hillary Clinton was hated in many corners, and not only because she chose to interpret her husband’s election to the presidency as her elevation to a co-presidency. That was only part of it. When they made fun of her changing hairstyles it was because she seemed not to be in search of a good look but trying on new blond helmets in which to grimly wade forward like Brunhilde.
Even Barbara Bush, probably the most liked of recent first ladies, got tagged as the Gray Fox or the Velvet Hammer. She was called tough as a boot and tagged as sharp-tongued. But no one has ever laid a glove on Laura. It is as if she were born to be first lady—easygoing, gently humorous, demure, ladylike. It takes enormous reserves of emotional discipline to sustain graciousness, to do the job right, to so disarm the press with what must be called, vulgarly but inescapably, natural class.
She has never embarrassed our country. Of how many leaders or their spouses can that be said?
Well done. Well and amazingly done. Someone should do a monograph on what it is she did and how it is she did it. And it should of course be noted that she is another reason for her husband’s popularity with his base, and outside of it, too.