Six months into his stewardship, President Bush is learning that the Democrats are the least of his problems.
On one issue after another--his tentative plan to grant amnesty to undocumented Mexican workers is only the latest--the president is finding that the Republican Party is a loose coalition of prickly factions all demanding to be heard. The time has long since passed when the "compassionate conservative" could get by simply on campaign sloganeering.
On some issues, Bush already has fallen short in the eyes of influential Republican constituencies. That is the case, for example, on education. The ideologues of the far right have been muttering for weeks about the president's willingness to toss their cherished plan for school vouchers over the side at what they saw as the first sign of resistance from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Caving in to Ted Kennedy, of all people. Can you believe it?
On other questions, the new president has appeared to be shifting his policies in reaction to critics. This is most obviously the case with energy and environmental policy, where the original emphasis on more production has been softened to give greater weight to conservation. The White House has discovered something not always apparent in Texas--that concern with the environment cuts across party and ideological lines. Tree-huggers come in all sizes and shapes.
At one level, the political arithmetic in these issues is simple. If he were to grant amnesty to up to 3 million Mexicans now living illegally in the United States, Bush might expect some increase in Hispanic support when he runs for reelection in 2004. And it might well more than offset the votes he would lose from the conservative Republicans now protesting the proposal. Or, at least, that is the political calculus inside the White House. In fact, these things never work out as neatly as the politicians expect. Voters base their decisions on a range of issues almost impossible to predict.
The same kind of questions can be asked about the political content of other issues. Bush has disappointed conservatives on the school voucher question, but has it been enough to cost him critical support three years from now? The experts may offer glib answers, quoting opinion-poll findings and the self-anointed spokesmen for the religious right, but the dirty little secret is that no one knows. Politics is not an exact science.
There is, however, another element of the politics that is far more significant in terms of the future and perhaps the next presidential election. Time and time again, Bush's problems with his fellow Republicans have reinforced the image that he has acquired for uncertainty about his goals and a lack of the personal force needed to bring Congress and the public along with him once he does define his purpose.
Bush has been praised extravagantly for the "victory" he achieved in winning approval for his tax reduction plan: In Washington, every decision requires that we identify someone as a winner or loser. But, let's face it, it's not that difficult to reduce taxes. Voters may tell poll-takers they would rather see the money devoted to debt reduction, but they will still take the cash. As the old saw has it, they don't shoot Santa Claus.
Of all the issues on the table today, the most politically dangerous for Bush--by light years--is the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. This question, more than any other to confront the president yet, exposes the widest fault line in the Republican Party: the huge gulf between those who believe people who disagree with them are simply mistaken and those who believe they are morally wrong.
There was a time not long ago when conservative Republicans criticized moderates on the wisdom of their policies but not on their moral fitness. That was the case in the era of Barry Goldwater, and it was true in the divisions within the party over Ronald Reagan. But the rise in the influence of the religious right has changed that, most obviously on such issues as abortion rights and homosexual rights. To be on the "wrong side" is now to be immoral.
So after Bush had spent a month hemming and hawing over a decision on stem cells, we were treated to the extraordinary spectacle of House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference, holding a press conference putting themselves on record against the embryonic stem cell research they called an "industry of death."
Their willingness showed a contempt for their president and putative leader of their party. It added to the picture of a weak Bush, simply by making it clear there was no reason to fear him--in a city where the ability to instill a little fear now and then is a prized attribute for a president. Can anyone imagine minor league House leaders trying to pressure Ronald Reagan with such tactics six months into his first term? Not likely.
The Dick Armeys and Tom DeLays are, of course, lineal successors of Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich, who seem to believe their political position qualifies them to be the arbiters of public morality and acceptable family values. But the election returns have shown moderate Republicans and independents unwilling to accept that kind of politics. At some point, the new president will be forced to choose.