Bush as Godhead, Revisited

by David Weigel

Ryan Sager (read his book) takes issue with my dismissal of Mario Loyola's adoration of the president, arguing that Bush's "unique disregard for public opinion" is "a positive trait."

Where he's gone against conservative principles is in areas where he simply doesn't have any conservative principles. For a man who came into office without a foreign policy, Bush is uniquely unengaged in domestic policy.

He sold-out small-government values on education in his first major bill as president because he really doesn't believe the government is the problem in public schools -- he thinks the federal government just needs to enforce stricter standards.

He gave free-market health-care reform short shrift and signed the Medicare prescription-drug bill because he didn't see anything particularly wrong with massively expanding the size of the welfare state.

He signed off on pork-filled highway and farm bills because reducing pork has never been a priority in his administration.

These aren't moral failings, or a failure to stand up for what he believes in. He simply doesn't believe in a number of principles that used to define conservatism.

I'll buy some of that, but I don't buy that Bush ignores public opinion. He "ignores public opinion" the same way a losing kiddie soccer team ignores its 0-11 scores. He's obviously peeved when he's down in the polls, or when Americans rebuff one of his initiatives. It was pretty clear in his yesterday's press conference, but it was clearest in the 2005 Social Security campaign (an initiative I actually supported, at first). Bush was clearly angry that the polls were turning against him and tried to reframe the fight as his courage versus the whims of a wimpy public.

What Marlo wants to know is whether or not we've got the courage, the political courage to take this issue on and solve it.  That's what she wants to know. And what I want to assure you all is that I like calling Congress to do big things, because that's what we got elected to do.

He eventually gave up that fight, of course. And he had claimed, as he had claimed about vetoing pork-stuffed appropriations packages, that he was in it to win it and wouldn't give up, damn the polls and damn the torpedos. He did the same, as Sager points out, on McCain-Feingold. He caved on the Department of Homeland Security - a big government disaster he originally claimed to oppose - when he (or Karl Rove) saw how it could be thumped over the crania of the Democrats.

There's nothing wrong with retooling an agenda or message to stay afloat and push it through Congress. (OK, it depends on how you retool the actual agenda.) And it's expected that an administration try to paper over its shifts and mood changes and claim not to care about the polls. But it obviously pays attention to polls in doing so.

(Cross-posted on Hit and Run.)