RECENT DEFEATS suffered by President Bush -- in Congress and in the courts -- indicate more than his overreach and underachievement. His languishing fortunes suggest something more consequential: deep rifts in the conservative movement.
With binocular vision, people tend to see only two sides in politics. So right and left alike have frequently misunderstood conservatives as a solid monolith. Republicans’ control of Congress and Bush’s 2004 victory gave weight to the belief that the GOP is not only a victory machine but a unified bloc.
But just review the last month for a fuller picture. A Republican-run Congress, over White House objections, has opposed torture and disallowed oil drilling in Alaska. It refused to extend the Patriot Act for more than five weeks while it took time out to consider civil liberties. Congress also passed a fierce measure against immigration without Bush’s guest-worker program. Stringent budget cuts that the White House had supported passed the Senate only thanks to Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote. Bagman-lobbyist-crony Jack Abramoff is poised to blow the whistle on conservative legislators.
Meanwhile, conservative judges -- some appointed by Bush himself -- have been upending policies beloved of other conservatives. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of Pennsylvania ruled against intelligent-design campaigners. Judge J. Michael Luttig of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals deplored the shunting of Jose Padilla from one court to another in an attempt to avert a decision, saying the administration had incurred what may prove to be “substantial cost to the government’s credibility.”
Bloggers have taken to calling such judges “RINOS” -- Republicans In Name Only.
In Congress, Republicans such as Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) have broken with Bush’s bravado in Iraq. And now, Bush’s exertions of executive power in the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping have crossed the political DMZ -- the editorial page editor of the conservative business weekly Barron’s has asked the House Judiciary Committee to consider impeaching the president. “Administration lawyers and the president himself have tortured the Constitution and extracted a suspension of the separation of powers,” Thomas G. Donlan wrote. “If we don’t discuss the [wiretap] program and the lack of authority for it, we are meeting the enemy -- in the mirror.”
Bush’s electoral mandate vanished with the Social Security privatization plan. His approval ratings may bounce around (within a certain range) but his power is, politically, a wasting asset.
In truth, the impression of conservative solidity has always been something of an illusion. Conservatives compose an alliance, not a monolith. There are religious conservatives dismayed by what they view as moral decline -- abortion, gay marriage, secularism, evolution and so on. Then there are anti-tax, anti-government conservatives who back deregulation and privatization.
Far less numerous are the so-called neoconservatives (now in their fourth decade, so it may be time for a new label), whose fervor is for the remaking of the offshore world under American auspices, and the libertarians, who deplore government incursions on freedom, whether in markets or civil liberties.
No less an authority than Ronald Reagan firmly recognized, in a 1977 speech, that conservatives came in two principal varieties -- social conservatives and anti-tax conservatives -- and that they could only prevail over their liberal antagonists if they federated. Today, the fraying seams are showing more conspicuously than in many decades.
When alliances have to be knit together, leadership counts hugely, because it is the leader’s charisma and his aura as a winner that persuades the often-contentious groupings to submerge their interests into a larger cause. And conservatives have been fortunate indeed in the symbolic force of their standard-bearers, along with the vividness of the enemies they could mobilize against. Reagan fastened on Iranian hostage-takers and communists, George W. Bush on jihadists. Both orchestrated their priorities so that the social conservatives would be sufficiently satisfied to rally around them while tax cuts and deregulation won friends even as deficits mounted.
In recent years, conservatives have had only two large interest and identity groups to unify. Liberals, by contrast, number at least seven (with overlaps): trade unions, African Americans, Latinos, feminist women, gay and lesbian groups, environmentalists and the university-based left. Pro-free-trade and welfare-reforming centrist Democrats complicate the task. Not surprisingly, they have produced only one adroit politician in the past quarter of a century: Bill Clinton.
In 1968, a liberal cleavage over the overlapping preoccupations of Vietnam and race cracked the Democrats so badly they took decades to (partly) patch up their differences. Richard Nixon exploited the cleavage and picked up some of the breakaways.
Today, as liberals and other Democrats feel their way toward equivalent strategies of their own, the question for conservatives is whether they face a single dividing chasm or several shallower, cross-cutting ravines. If the latter, they may yet pull through. But if one cleavage deepens to subsume several others -- Iraq, or corruption in high places -- conservatives may well discover how fragile the heights of power can be.