Is There Progress Through Loss?

A year ago I wrote a column called “A Separate Peace,” in which I said America’s leaders in all areas—government, business, journalism—were in some deep way checking out. They saw bad things coming in the world and for our country, didn’t think they could do anything about it, and were instead building a new pool or buying good memories for their kids. Soon after I was invited to address a group of Capitol Hill staffers to talk about the piece. When the meeting was over a woman walked up to me. She spoke of what was going wrong in Washington—the preoccupation with money, a lack of focus on the essentials, and the relentless dynamic of politics: first thing you do when you get power is move to keep power. And after a while you don’t have any move but that move.

I said I thought the Republicans would take it on the chin in 2006, and that would force the beginning of wisdom. She surprised me. She was after all a significant staffer giving all her energy to helping advance conservative ideas within the Congress. “Yes,” she said, in a quiet, deadly way. As in: I can’t wait. As in: We’ll get progress only through loss.

That’s a year ago, from the Hill.

This is two weeks ago, from a Bush appointee: “I hope they lose the House.” And one week ago, from a veteran of two GOP White Houses: “I hope they lose Congress.” Republicans this year don’t say “we” so much.

What is behind this? A lot of things, but here’s a central one: They want to fire Congress because they can’t fire President Bush.

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Republican political veterans go easy on ideology, but they’re tough on incompetence. They see Mr. Bush through the eyes of experience and maturity. They hate a lack of care. They see Mr. Bush as careless, and on more than Iraq—careless with old alliances, disrespectful of the opinion of mankind. “He never listens,” an elected official who is a Bush supporter said with a shrug some months ago. Along the way the president’s men and women confused the necessary and legitimate disciplining of a coalition with weird and excessive attempts to silence Republican critics. They have lived in a closed system. They now want to open it but don’t know how. Listening is a habit; theirs has long been to suppress.

In the Republican base, that huge and amorphous thing, judgments are less tough, more forgiving. But there too things have changed.

Angry ElephantThere remains a broad, reflexive, and very Republican kind of loyalty to George Bush. He is a war president with troops in the field. You can see his heart. He led us in a very human way through 9/11, from the early missteps to the later surefootedness. He was literally surefooted on the rubble that day he threw his arm around the retired fireman and said the people who did this will hear from all of us soon.

Images like that fix themselves in the heart. They’re why Mr. Bush’s popularity is at 38%. Without them it wouldn’t be so high.

But there’s unease in the base too, again for many reasons. One is that it’s clear now to everyone in the Republican Party that Mr. Bush has changed the modern governing definition of “conservative.”

He did this without asking. He did it even without explaining. He didn’t go to the people whose loyalty and support raised him high and say, “This is what I’m doing, this is why I’m changing things, here’s my thinking, here are the implications.” The cynics around him likely thought this a good thing. To explain is to make things clearer, or at least to try, and they probably didn’t want it clear. They had the best of both worlds, a conservative reputation and a liberal reality.

And Republicans, most of whom are conservative in at least general ways, and who endure the disadvantages of being conservative because they actually believe in ideas, in philosophy, in an understanding of the relation of man and the state, are still somewhat concussed. The conservative tradition on foreign affairs is prudent realism; the conservative position on borders is that they must be governed; the conservative position on high spending is that it is obnoxious and generationally irresponsible. Etc.

This is not how Mr. Bush has governed. And so in the base today personal loyalty, and affection, bumps up against intellectual unease.

The administration tries to get around this, to quiet the unease, with things like the Republican National Committee ad in which Islamic terrorists plot to kill America.

They do want to kill America, and all the grownups know it. But this is a nation of sophisticates, and every Republican sipping a Bud at a bar in Chilicothe, Ill., who looks up and sees that ad thinks: They’re trying to scare the base to increase turnout. Turnout’s the key.

Here’s a thing about American politics. Nobody sees himself as the base. They see themselves as individuals. And they’re not dumb. They get it all. They know when you’re trying to manipulate. They’ll even tell you, with a lovely detachment, if you’re doing a good job. (An unreported story this year is the lack of imagination, seriousness and respect in the work of political consultants on both sides. They have got to catch up with American brightness.)

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The Republican establishment, the Republican elite, is quietly supporting those candidates and ideas they think should be encouraged. They are thinking about whom they will back in ‘08. But they’re not thinking of this, most of them, with the old excitement. Because they sense, in their tough little guts, that the heroic age of the American presidency is, for now, over. No president is going to come along and save us, and Congress isn’t going to save us. Events will cause a reckoning, and then we’ll save ourselves. And in this we will refind our greatness.

The base probably thinks pretty much the same. They go through the motions, as patriots are sometimes called to do. As for the election, it reminds me not of 1994 but 1992. That year, at a bipartisan gathering, I was pressed for a prediction. I said it was a contest between depression (if Republicans win) and anxiety (if Democrats win). I said Americans will take anxiety over depression any day, because it’s the more awake state.

Al Gore was later told of this, and used it on the campaign trail. Only he changed “anxiety” to “hope.” Politicians kill me.