The worm may have finally turned for Republicans and President Bush.
Recently, Newt Gingrich wondered in the New Yorker whether Bush might be the GOP's Jimmy Carter: a party wrecker whose failures hobble his political allies for a generation. In a less civilized time, that sort of talk would have been settled with pistols at dawn.
Will Gingrich's concern be borne out? It will be a long while before we can say with any certainty. Bush's approval rating has sat in the low 30s for an uncommonly long time, and he will likely be a drag on the Republican nominee in 2008. The larger question, however, depends on the nature of Bush's failures.
Two of the most common criticisms of Bush have traditionally been that he is a rigid conservative ideologue and/or that he is a shameless partisan player. Certainly, the president has been more conservative than liberal, and his administration has at times been cravenly political. But neither of these criticisms adequately account for the character of Bush's tenure.
Start with his supposed arch-conservatism. Bush was never the conservative his supporters hoped for and his opponents feared. To pick just three large initiatives, consider No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug plan, and his splitting the difference on embryonic stem cell research. Each was at odds with traditional conservatism. As smaller examples, recall the Supreme Court nomination of Bush crony Harriet Miers and the approval of the "emergency contraceptive" Plan B in exchange for the confirmation of David Hager, Bush's nominee at the time to head the Food and Drug Administration. Both of these were deliberate thumbs in the eyes of conservatives.
Then there's the Bush reputation for partisan opportunism. John DiIulio, former head of Bush's faith-based initiative, once lamented that "what you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm."
DiIulio may well have been accurate. Yet that can hardly explain a number of important stances the president has taken that are clearly against his political self-interest: his stillborn, but noble, attempt at Social Security reform; his Middle Eastern freedom agenda; and his continuing commitment to the war in Iraq. The president's immigration proposal is particularly striking because it runs counter to conservative ideology, is broadly unpopular among the general electorate, and is supremely unpopular among base Republican voters. The only way to explain Bush's commitment to immigration is that he must believe it is objectively the best policy for America.
(Well, there is one other theoretical possibility: If Bush were determined that John McCain not succeed him in office, he could hardly have done better than pushing immigration to center stage right now.)
None of which is to say that there is neither rhyme nor reason to Bush. The thread running through the nearly complete tapestry of his presidency is incompetence.
From the bungling after Hurricane Katrina to the appointment of political hacks to the mismanagement of the war (and peace) in Iraq, Bush's problems hail back not to failures of ideology or partisanship, but to simple incompetence from the chief executive and his administration. As Joseph Bottum puts it: "Again and again, [Bush] has done the right thing in the wrong way, until, at last, his wrongness has overwhelmed his rightness."
This is not to say that everything Bush touches turns to dross; that is clearly not the case. The appointments of Supreme Court Justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., for example, appear to be smashing successes, a true marriage of principled conservatism and good government.
And certainly Bush's administration has often been criticized unfairly. For instance, it is a common trope that the president has badly damaged America's relationship with our European allies. Yet recent elections in Germany and France swept clearly pro-American leaders to power.
That said, the overall impression of haplessness has the potential to inflict long-term damage on the Republican Party.
One of the golden rules of politics is to never let an issue problem become a character problem. The failure of any given Bush policy, or basket of policies, is one thing. It might cost Republicans an election and set the party back a bit. But if the sum of Bush's mistakes comes to represent the party's character, even after he's gone, that's another matter entirely. Just ask the post-Carter Democrats.
The obvious way out for Republicans is to run against both the Democratic nominee and Bush in 2008. Easier said than done.
Gingrich, however, has sketched out a rough blueprint for this strategy based on the success of Nicolas Sarkozy. As Gingrich explained to the New Yorker:
"What's fascinating about Sarkozy is that you have an incumbent cabinet member of a very unpopular 12-year presidency, who over the last three years became the clear advocate of fundamental change, running against an attractive woman who is the head of the opposition. In a country that wanted to say, 'Not them,' he managed to switch the identity of the 'them.' He said, 'I'm different from [former French president Jacques] Chirac, and she's not. If you want more of the same, you should vote for her.' "
Understand that the specter of Bush will be one of a few important dynamics influencing the 2008 race. The next election presents a rare combination of electoral uncertainty: a nation at war, split roughly 50-50 between the parties, with massive demographic shifts in motion (both of new immigrants and a rapidly aging population), and no incumbent leader running. It is an election with few precedents and an enormous capacity for volatility.
If the worst is true and Bush's failures pose a serious threat to the party, the Republicans will have to distance themselves from him, as Gingrich suggests. The question is whether they will do it before the election, or afterward, when the Democrats could conceivably control the House, the White House, and 62 seats in the Senate.
The sooner the better.