Failure to Convert

Political parties rarely make deep changes in their societies by winning a single election. Once in power they generally need to reinforce their support, repeat their triumphs at the polls, and so change the terms of politics that even their opponents adjust their positions. That is what Margaret Thatcher did, and Tony Blair may be in a comparable position now that he has won a second landslide victory. The prospects for George W. Bush are, thankfully, much less certain. If the first phase of his presidency is any indication, he may be Thatcher-like in his ideological convictions but not in his long-term impact on politics.

This was one of the big questions after Republicans took undivided control of the government in January for the first time in nearly half a century: Could they convert their razor-thin victories into durable majorities? Much of the Republican program is best understood in terms of its potential long-term payoff in entrenching conservative power: tax cuts that make liberal programs impossible for years to come; judicial appointees to limit federal authority and reverse precedents in such areas as abortion rights, affirmative action, and church-state relations; private Social Security accounts, faith-based services, and school vouchers to undermine public institutions (and in the case of the schools, teachers unions) identified with the Democratic Party.

Carrying out most of these aims, however, requires winning not just one presidential election but at least two, as well as holding (indeed, enlarging) control of the Congress. Thanks to Senator Jim Jeffords, all-Republican government lasted just four months, at least for now. As political eras go, this one went rather quickly. The Republicans were anxious to portray Jeffords's defection as an isolated act, but it was symptomatic of a broader trend. Since the inauguration, the unmistakable right-wing tilt of the Bush administration has taken a political toll among all but the Republicans' conservative base. The proportion of Americans saying they disapprove of Bush's handling of his presidency has nearly doubled, up from 23 percent in February to 40 percent at the beginning of June, according to Washington Post–ABC News surveys.

The latest of these polls still shows Bush with a 55 percent approval rating, but on the question of whose leadership the country should follow, slightly more people choose congressional Democrats than the president. And by wide margins, the respondents say that the shift of the Senate to the Democrats is "a good thing" rather than a bad one and pick the Democrats as the party "more open to the ideas of people who are political moderates."

Polls change, and Bush has plenty of time to alter public perceptions. Much of the growth in public disapproval, however, simply reflects better information about Bush. His campaign successfully blurred differences with the Democrats, but once in office the deeply conservative character of his presidency became apparent. Imagine how popular his administration might be if he had made it a priority to pass a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Instead, Bush and Dick Cheney have repeatedly shown more interest in cultivating their base than in extending it; they convey the impression of being true believers who are prepared to face the consequences, God bless them, if their policies prove to be unpopular. Which in some areas, such as energy and the environment, they already have.

To be sure, while Republicans controlled Congress, Bush was able to achieve a huge victory in winning the tax cut. But because so many of its provisions do not phase in for years--and then, in the final year of the legislation, mysteriously vanish--the law does not lock in fiscal realities as dangerously as it might have. Though it gives Bush "ownership" of what happens to the economy in the next few years, the slow phase-in (and phase-out) makes it likely that the cuts will still be on the table in the next two elections. In what budgeters call the "out" years, the case for rewriting the legislation should gain force because the cuts that come toward the end--notably, the elimination of the estate tax--are particularly regressive. Bush is going to have to get re-elected to make the tax cuts stick, and as the costs grow he may well find himself defending an increasingly untenable position.

None of this guarantees that Democrats will win the 2004 election, but it does mean that the worst damage done so far by the Republicans is reversible. From a legislative viewpoint, the Democrats' slender working majority in the Senate may give them at most the power to keep down the damage in coming months. But liberals in the Senate have a larger opportunity to take command of part of the national stage and use it to redirect attention to their vision for the country. They can do that by using hearings and investigations effectively, by employing artful tactics in battles over appropriations, and by forcing debates on their own bills. Given the absence of presidential leadership in the party, the run-up to the 2002 election may even be the time for something more: a congressional opposition agenda analogous to the Republicans' Contract with America in 1994.

The real contest in coming months will not be over budget appropriations and such issues as patients' rights, though these will be the immediate focus of debate. With the parties almost evenly matched in national politics, the contest will be for belief. The Republicans' initial failure to convert their control of the government into broad popular support provides an opening for liberals to lay the predicate for public remedy. With all their talk about faith-based approaches, you'd have thought the conservatives would have been better proselytizers.

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