Sunday, January 6, 2008

Agreement, Disagreement and the Weight of the Bush White House

As "We Agreed to Agree, and Forgot To Notice" observed in today's "Week in Review" section of the Times, there may well be a growing sense of agreement among Americans on contentious issues such as gay rights and the death penalty. But Kirk Johnson's interesting article omits on important explanation for this phenomenon: the Bush administration's habit of governing in an authoritarian manner with a radically conservative agenda. The White House and the Republican Party have exploited the post-9/11 environment and the powers of the presidency to govern in a way that obscures the widely-shared beliefs and decencies of most Americans.

While I'm skeptical of claims that there is a huge liberal majority out there waiting to elect an "authentically" liberal candidate--a charge that some Democratic activists level against "big tent" Democrats open to compromise with moderates--there's no doubt that Bush has governed in a manner to the right of the American mainstream. Even allowing for the shift to the right in recent decades, Bush has gone far beyond what was expected when he campaigned in 2000 as a unifying "compassionate conservative."

His tax policies, after all, disproportionately benefit only the wealthiest Americans. And after 9/11, when the country wanted to be brought together in an effective response to terrorism, Bush chose to demonize Democrats as soft on defense, shred the constitution, and invade Iraq.

The president's incredibly low approval ratings are proof of at least one thing: it is Bush who is out of the mainstream. Once you look beyond the not-insignificant powers of this office you can see considerable agreement among Americans on the deep flaws in his policies.

None of this means that the conservative movement is over. If nothing else, the emergence of Mike Huckabee is a reminder that the Christian right is an important part of the the Republican Party base that can still produce a viable candidate, albeit with more charm and a populist style.

The political landscape has not been redrawn, and there is every reason to expect that whoever the Democrats nominate will face a Republican firestorm in November. But so far in this primary season, voters who have had a chance to speak have expressed anything but satisfaction with a continuation of the Bush administration's status quo.

That's good news for the Democrats. And it's more proof that President Bush is out of touch with the deepest yearnings of the American people.

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