A Democratic Year?

A Democratic Year?

The Republicans, I rejoice to report, are an unhappy family these days. They even bear some resemblances to the Democrats during the Vietnam era.

Their base, to be sure, is not shattering: it remains foursquare behind George W. Bush. But the same cannot be said of their superstructure. Within the Republican Congress and commentariat a civil war has broken out between the neoconservative champions of the war in Iraq and a growing number of anti-neocon-conservatives who are appalled at the administration’s bungling of the occupation or who never believed in our capacity to remake the Middle East into a Westernized democracy-or both. From the columns of George Will to the comments of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Richard Lugar of Indiana, the discreet clamor of the paleo-cons, arguing that the administration has all but pre-ordained our failure in Iraq, grows steadily louder.

By the historic standard of Democrats, of course, the conservative dissenters are a decorous bunch. No one is calling for Bush to stand down or pull out as such, and Lugar, unlike J. William Fulbright, his Democratic predecessor as Foreign Relations chair during Vietnam, is unwilling to challenge a president from his party head-on. But their opposition to and criticism of the policy with which the president is most closely identified, this close to a general election, has scant precedent in Republican history.

The erosion of support from Republican moderates, and some traditional conservatives, is one reason why a series of polls from mid-May showed Bush’s approval ratings down in the mid-40 percentiles-the lowest of his presidency, and a level that historically has spelled doom to an incumbent president’s bid for a second term. With Bush’s toughness no longer the virtue that offsets all flaws, disenthralled moderates are now free to contemplate and be sickened by the Republicans’ lurch to the right.

And the turn rightward is the essence of Bush’s presidency, following as it does from the administration’s central strategic premise: that Bush’s father lost his second term because he estranged the Republican right, and that no one or nothing will ever be permitted to come between the younger Bush and the conservative movements. This, of course, misreads Poppy Bush’s travails: it was the economy, not the right, that did him in. But Karl Rove and the younger Bush see it differently: by agreeing to raise taxes and appoint the occasional social moderate to public office (David Souter, for instance), Poppy called down upon himself the twin catastrophes of Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge and the GOP right’s November indifference to his reelection.

HIS SON’S been made of sterner stuff; his entire administration can be seen as a rejection of the fundamental directions, in foreign and social policy both, of his father. (Indeed, there hasn’t been so clea...