The inescapable signs of disillusionment surrounding the Bush administration in its sixth year, facing a second mid-term election, suggest far more than the usual syndrome of incumbent weariness. These are the rumblings of a regime crisis.
President Bush's whole party bears the burden of his accumulated self-generated difficulties not only because of their overwhelming scale but also because the Republicans have sustained disciplined one-party rule in which congressional oversight has been largely suppressed. The congressional Republicans' feeble assertion of institutional authority has made changing the Congress the only way to revive it and check and balance Bush's radical presidency during his remaining two years.
Bush's radicalism dominates policy and politics, as I document in my book new How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime.
His all-encompassing "war on terror," conflating the disparate al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgency as "a single movement," is also reflected in his dismissal of diplomatic and political solutions, urgently advocated by U.S. military commanders in Iraq for years, and Vice President Dick Cheney's sneering denigration of "law enforcement" in favor of the militarization of policy.
Bush's belief in an unfettered imperial presidency is apparent in his doctrine of the "unitary executive," his executive order asserting that the commander in chief under wartime can impose his will by fiat, and more than 750 signing statements stipulating that he will enforce enacted laws as he chooses. Bush's radicalism can also be seen in his advocacy of unwarranted domestic surveillance, "alternative" interrogation techniques applied to detainees unbound by the Geneva Conventions against torture ("the dark side," as Vice President Cheney has approvingly called it), and granting Cheney power equal to the president's to control the classification of intelligence.
While Cheney is the true author of Bush's radical presidency as the fulfillment of Richard Nixon's ambition thwarted by Watergate, Steven Bradbury, acting deputy attorney general, has most succinctly stated the droit du seigneur Bush doctrine: "The president is always right."
Bush is the only president, ever, who has been hostile to science. His antagonism is reflected in his restrictions on stem cell research that might lead to cures of many diseases--an issue now at the center of political campaigns from Missouri to California; his rules forbidding groups that receive federal funding from mentioning the words "condom" and "reproductive health" on their websites; his censoring of government scientists on global warming and climate change; and his urging that so-called "Intelligent Design" as an alternative theory to evolution be taught in public schools, despite a federal court's ruling against it.
Bush's radical political strategy depends upon the radicalism of his policies. It cannot be captiously described as mere spin. Bush and his chief political operative Karl Rove's strategy of extreme polarization in order to achieve maximum turnout of the conservative base requires constant agitation around the most abrasive social issues, but above all war without end. But even gay marriage, abortion, and guns would have proved insufficient without politicization of a projected perpetual war in which the opposition is depicted as "appeasers," "pre-9/11," and "Defeatocrats."
In Bush's second term, Rove's deliberately divisive approach failed at achieving a national political realignment, but it has succeeded in restructuring the Republican Party. Rove's imperative of unifying the right-wing base leaves the party in pieces. Bush's earlier political successes have laid the groundwork for possibly profound losses in the future. The religious right has moved to the center of the party, the moderate remnant pushed to the fringes. A potential wipeout of moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest in 2006 and 2008 will make the potential of Republican Party emerging as a moderate force that much more improbable in the future.
The effects of Bush's radicalism since 2004 have dramatically driven Republican Party identification down to 32 percent from 37 percent in October 2004, and now trailing Democratic identification by almost 6 points. Nearly everywhere, Republican candidates are not campaigning as Republicans but as supra-party local figures. When Bush arrives, candidates flee from the photo opportunity. By August, Bush had a greater approval than disapproval rating in only three small western states: Idaho, Oklahoma and Wyoming. Even in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, more than 50 percent consider his performance unfavorably. Bush has the most sustained unpopularity of any president since Herbert Hoover.
Some Republicans have begun to express anxious recognition of their party's fundamental transformation. "I think we've lost our way," Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has reversed his falling fortunes by embracing Democratic positions across the board, is a party of one. William F. Buckley, Jr., a founding father of the modern conservative movement, declared that Bush's radicalism is not conservative at all, but the "absence of effective conservative ideology." Buckley predicted, "There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush... So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable."
In response to his catastrophic policies, Bush stays the course, and turns up the heat on ever more inflammatory rhetoric to electrify his base as its energy runs down. Rather than rethinking his counterproductive policies, he is redoubling his bets on his polarizing strategy.
Bush's radical presidency has recast the character of the party, its purposes and appeal, and Republicans' disorientation in the 2006 mid-term campaign is only the first inkling of coming disintegration. His radicalism is unique, but the consequences are pervasive and lasting. In the future, to the extent Republican presidential candidates adhere to his legacy they will be undermined beyond the party hardcore; to the extent they reject his legacy they will be undermined within the hardcore. Bush may contaminate the Republican Party brand for perhaps a generation to come.