Dark days lie ahead for President Bush

The conservative coalition that elected George W. Bush is falling apart.

Many of its members are furious with the president, and furious with each other. The health of the Republican Party may well hinge on whether the warring factions can heal their self-inflicted wounds and find common ground in time for the next presidential election.

Nursing grievances on many fronts-the Harriet Miers nomination, the lavish post-Katrina federal spending, the woes in Iraq, the scandals engulfing the GOP’s top leaders, and many more prominent conservatives are talking and behaving in ways that would have been unthinkable nine months ago, when Bush was sworn in for a second time.

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic-policy aide under Ronald Reagan, says Bush and the conservatives “are headed for divorce.” Peggy Noonan, the GOP speech writer, says the schism between Bush and his own base is a crisis “perhaps unprecedented in modern American politics.” Analyst Fred Barnes, a habitual defender of the Bush administration, says of the fracture: “It’s happening, and it’s serious.”

And it’s getting very personal. Consider the insult directed at Bush the other day by conservative commentator Jonathan V. Last. After learning that high-court nominee Miers had stated in 1989 that she couldn’t recall “the last time I read a whole book,” Last remarked: “Those who voted for George W. Bush were promised a mind like (Antonin) Scalia’s for the Supreme Court. Instead, they’ve been given a mind like George W. Bush’s.”

Mark Rozell, a political analyst at George Mason University who tracks the conservative movement, said: “There is so much bitter frustration right now. Conservatives were out of power for so long, and once they got into power, their expectations were so high. But those expectations are not being met.

“So they’re firing not just at Bush, but at each other. The conservative movement has always been, in a sense, a dysfunctional family. They get along well when times are good, but when times are bad, you start to see all these fights between purists and pragmatists.”

H.L. Mencken, the famed political commentator of yesteryear, remarked during the New Deal that the Democratic Party comprised “gangs of natural enemies in a precarious state of symbiosis.” That’s also a fair description of the GOP during the Bush era. The factions that muted their differences when Bush was riding high small-government conservatives, religious conservatives, war-hawk “neocons,” big-business conservatives now appear to be forming a circular firing squad, and hunting for betrayers of the movement. Similar actions will occur during the next few years, as conservatives seek a presidential candidate who can restore purity and rescue the movement from Bush’s alleged transgressions.

For instance, the religious conservatives, who care about values, are now openly attacking the business conservatives, who care about money.

Iraq is also exacerbating the tensions. One conservative faction, a mix of isolationists and self-described “realists,” scoffs openly at the “neocons,” who believe that the United States can bring democracy to the Middle East; one ex-CIA officer, Philip Giraldi, charged last week in a conservative magazine that Iraq is “America’s catastrophic imperial venture.” Meanwhile, conservative hawks are assailing the administration for running the war badly; as commentator Rich Lowry said last week: “The prison-abuse scandal was a profound error. Prisoners should be famously well-treated, which wins political points and if the counter insurgent campaign is going very well encourages surrenders.”

And even though Bush is trying to reunite conservatives by invoking the fight against terrorism, the pillars of business conservatism (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers) are revolting against a Patriot Act provision, up for renewal at year’s end, that allows the FBI to search their private business records with scant oversight from any court.

What makes matters worse, for the White House, is that the Bush strategist best qualified to make peace among the factions is missing in action.

“Karl Rove is the guy who kept all those factions together,” says Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition lobbyist and close observer of the conservative movement. “But he is distracted these days by his legal problems” namely, the fact that he could be indicted this week by a special prosecutor who is seeking to determine whether White House aides illegally blew the cover of a CIA officer in an effort to discredit the officer’s husband, a vocal critic of the rationale for the Iraq war.

“For years,” Wittmann said, “Rove was able to cajole everybody into muting their complaints and uniting behind Bush. But if he is indicted, all restraints will be gone and the factions will go their separate ways, competing with each other to define the future of the movement and the party.”

Without Rove around as a disciplinarian, conservatives continue to clash over Miers _ to the point where the nomination could be imperiled. A fractured base could push some conservative senators toward open opposition; they could be swayed by the argument voiced last week by rebellious former Bush aide David Frum that Bush’s choice of Miers is a betrayal equal in magnitude to the elder George Bush’s violation of his “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise.

When Bruce Bartlett, the Reagan aide, assails Miers as “a patently unqualified crony,” he is referring to her dearth of experience with constitutional law. Last Thursday, conservative bloggers were appalled to learn that Miers, in response to a Senate questionnaire, had referred to “the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause.”