Did Bush Waste His Conservative Moment?
Steve Bainbridge believes that President Bush’s recent humbler tone is a tacit admission that he has failed in his conservative agenda.
Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei contend on the front page of today’s WaPo:
The lessons drawn by a variety of Bush advisers inside and outside the White House as they map a road to recovery in 2006 include these: Overarching initiatives such as restructuring Social Security are unworkable in a time of war. The public wants a balanced appraisal of what is happening on the battlefield as well as pledges of victory. And Iraq trumps all.
From this, Bainbridge concludes,
We can debate whether invading Iraq was a necessary step in the War on Terror. What we can no longer debate is that the Iraq War has brought the larger conservative agenda to a crashing halt, wasting a moment for which many of us in the conservative movement have waited for decades, and if public perceptions of the GOP don’t improve soon, threatening to undermine the conservative realignment for which we long hoped.
The problem with that is that there isn’t much evidence that the Bush domestic agenda was likely to pass absent the war in Iraq. Baker and VandeHei again:
In the heady days after reelection, Bush and Rove sketched out an ambitious agenda to avoid the traditional pitfalls of second-term presidents. They settled on four domestic priorities for 2005: remaking Social Security, revising the tax code, cracking down on court-clogging litigation and easing immigration rules. As the year ends, only some litigation limits have passed, and Social Security, tax and immigration plans are dead or comatose.
Which of these were popular, let alone enough so to overcome the inevitable Democratic filibuster in the Senate?
Social Security? While I like the idea of privatizing it, it is a non-starter politically. This initiative failed, not because of Iraq–although, granted, an expensive transition was harder with a war on–but becuase most people don’t believe that Social Security is in crisis. People aren’t going to approve massive changes in a popular program until they have to.
The tax code? The president has had some success here but run into some bad luck. Yes, Iraq made this one harder but so did Katrina. The main problem, though, is that Bush has never offered up a vision beyond “tax cuts good” on this issue.
Tort reform? This, more than any other domestic issue, was repeatedly emphasized during the 2004 reelection campaign. Politically, it is a winner and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more on it beyond the controversial bankruptcy reform bill. There are still three years to go in the term, though, so there’s still hope.
Easing immigration rules? This one will divide the base, with most opposed to it. The debate alone would be rancorous and could well tear the party apart.
Beyond that, though, I reject the premise of the Baker-VandeHei assessment. The president has long understood that his legacy will be based almost entirely on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Sometimes, real life interferes with ones hopes and dreams.
Update: See “Conservative Bloggers Debate Bush” for an earlier debate with Bainbridge on this topic.