George W. Bush is not the President he wanted to be. In 2000 he campaigned, famously, as "a uniter, not a divider," and by all indications he was perfectly sincere. As the governor of Texas he prided himself on finding common ground with the state's Democrats. But in the White House he proved to be a polarizer like no other President in memory.
What turned Bush into a divider? Not the Iraq War, or at least not only that. The war was certainly divisive, but it mainly divided Democrats. The Democratic Senate, after all, approved the war resolution, and John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for it (as did a majority of Senate Democrats and Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader). Nor is it the case, whatever Michael Moore may say, that Bush has governed as a conservative extremist. For every gift to conservatives (aggressive tax cuts, support for faith-based community groups, support for missile defense, abandonment of the global-warming treaty, restrictions on fetal stem-cell research) there has been a measure to offend them (campaign-finance reform, a giant new prescription-drug entitlement, the No Child Left Behind education law, an anti-market farm bill, anti-market steel tariffs, dizzyingly profligate federal spending). In truth, Bush looks less like Ronald Reagan than like Richard Nixon, a conservative who was consistent not in his conservatism but in his determination to poach all the best political real estate, wherever it lay. Like Nixon, but even more so, Bush is more polarizing than his policies. Why?
Bill Clinton recently offered a nugget of insight. In an interview in July with Rolling Stone magazine, he suggested that Bush and the Republicans blundered in 2002 by going all out to win control of the Senate and thus of Congress as a whole. (The Republicans have firmly controlled the House since 1995, whereas the Senate has recently been up for grabs.) "President Bush would have been far better off in his re-election if he'd let the natural rhythm of 2002 unfold and let the Democrats pick up a few seats," Clinton mused. "We would have held the Senate and maybe increased our margin by one or two; the House would be very close. But it would have compelled him to take a more moderate position."