Thursday, March 3, 2005

Hard Start

It’s barely March and already Bush is in trouble, not just with the Democrats but his own party. Howard Dean is getting the Democratic grassroots growing by doing his Red States tour, Tom DeLay is losing support in his own district in Texas, and a new poll from the New York Times finds that a majority of Americans “say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush’s ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program….”

Sidney Blumenthal predicts the demise of Bush’s reform of Social Security, and with it goes his second term agenda, his legacy, and the hopes of the Republican majority.

The coming defeat of President Bush on Social Security will be the defining moment in domestic policy and politics for his second term and for the future of the Republican Party. It will be a central, clarifying event because Bush alone chose to make this fight.

Campaigning in 2004 on the trauma of Sept. 11, he won by the smallest margin of any incumbent president in American history. The Electoral College map was little changed from the deadlock of 2000. While Bush barely took two states he had lost before (Iowa and New Mexico), he lost one to John Kerry — New Hampshire. Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove, had forecast a fundamental realignment that would establish Republican dominance, but Bush’s desperate political position required a series of tactics of character assassination against the Democratic candidate and culture war gambits on gay marriage, atmospherically organized around the fear factor of Sept. 11. The outcome was a strategic victory but not a structural one, and Bush’s campaign further polarized the country.

In the chasm between his meager win and his grandiose ambition, Bush might have decided to form a government containing some moderate Republican and Democratic Cabinet members, claiming that the gravity of foreign crisis demanded national unity. But the thought never occurred to him. Instead, he bulled ahead in the hope of realizing the realignment that eluded him in the election.


And yet the more the public has learned of Bush’s plan, the more it has buckled. Poll after poll reveals that increased information leads to heightened resistance. Growing majorities oppose Bush’s program, Bush’s favorability rating has plunged to the lowest level of any president at this point in his second term, and trust in the Democrats has steadily risen.

In the face of public rejection, Bush retreats and attacks at the same time. He has announced that he is uncertain when or even if he will propose his own bill before Congress, while the White House says that the president will stage new rallies for the Social Security initiative that has yet to take any practical form.


Bush’s impending defeat on Social Security is no minor affair. He has made this the centerpiece of domestic policy of his second term. It is the decades-long culmination of the conservative wing’s hostility against Social Security and the Democratic Party. Projecting images of Roosevelt and Kennedy cannot distract from Bush’s intent to undermine the accomplishments of Democratic presidents. The repudiation of Bush on Social Security will be fundamental and profound and will shake the foundations of conservative Republicanism. Bush’s agony is only beginning, if the Democrats in the Senate can maintain their discipline.

Now is not the time to sit back and watch. It’s one thing to let someone self-destruct on his own, but when there’s an opportunity to help them, by all means let’s do it.