President Bush is the most conservative president in modern times. He consciously modeled himself as the opposite of his father's split political personality. Fiercely attacked as a betrayer, the elder Bush was partially defeated by a conservative revolt. In a classic case of reaction formation, George W. Bush was determined never to make an enemy on the right.
President Bush brought the neoconservatives, banished by Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., back into government, and followed their scenario to the letter for remaking the Middle East through an invasion of Iraq, using 9/11 as the pretext. He meticulously followed the right-wing script on supply-side economics, enacting an enormous tax cut for the wealthy that fostered a deficit that dwarfed Reagan's, the problem his father had tried to resolve through a tax increase that earned the right's hostility. And Bush has followed the religious right's line on stem cell research, abortion and creationism.
For his vision of the world as black and white, his disdain for internationalism and international law, his tainting of the domestic opposition as unpatriotic, his unapologetic tax breaks and loopholes for the upper brackets, and his religious zealotry, conservatives celebrated him. "The Right Man" was the title of a glowing hagiography by his former speechwriter, David Frum (also author of the Bush phrase "axis of evil," or at least "axis of ..."). "Bush's Greatness" was the headline of an article published in the neoconservative journal the Weekly Standard just before the 2004 election. Critics of Bush, it contended, were haters, and haters of Bush hated all "American conservatives and especially white, religious American conservatives."
For his second term, Bush took his narrow victory as a mandate to govern from the hard right. At last, he would begin the privatization of Social Security, rolling back the signature program of the New Deal. But he stumbled upon a dirty little secret of conservatism: Members of the public support conservative presidents so long as they leave the liberal programs that benefit them alone. The more Bush barnstormed the country to promote his Social Security scheme, the more the public became aware of it and opposed him.
Baffled and confounded, he plowed ahead, even as the Iraq war eroded his support. Then Hurricane Katrina blew the top off his administration's culture of cronyism. Meanwhile, the special prosecutor investigating the disclosure of a covert CIA operative's identity by senior administration officials has moved steadily and silently like a submarine toward his targets.
Bush's nomination of his White House legal counsel and former personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, for the Supreme Court was the hair trigger for a conservative revolt. Miers is demonstrably the least qualified nominee for the high court since Clarence Thomas. She has never been a judge or prominent public official and has no background in constitutional law. She appears on the White House Web site discussing how Bush plays horseshoes with his dog: "The president throws the horseshoes to Barney, and Barney runs after them."
In a meeting this week with the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, who had said she needed a "crash course" in the law, Miers explained that she supported two court decisions that were the basis for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Then Miers took back her statement, reinforcing an image of incompetence and ignorance.
Conservatives see her nomination as a rebuke to the cadres of ideologues in the Federalist Society groomed for Republican upward mobility; right-wing pundits have outdone each other in denouncing her as a crony. Frum has launched a petition drive to force Bush to withdraw her nomination. "She once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met," the Bush iconographer sneered. Yet Bush nominated Miers in place of professional ideologues because he had fallen from grace as a consequence of his stubborn adherence to conservative policies; Bush calculated that the Senate would approve her but not a right-wing judge with a well-delineated record. Had Bush's conservative policies succeeded, he might have been able to name a purebred ideologue.
Instead Bush finds himself the brunt of a right-wing campaign of intimidation. In response, he has declared that he chose Miers because of her religion and that the lapsed Roman Catholic turned evangelical Protestant would never change, thereby undercutting her independence as well as violating the spirit of Article 6 of the Constitution, which prohibits a "religious test" for public office.
Despite Bush's faithful implementation of conservative ideas, disloyal ideologues blame him personally to deflect attention from the failure of their ideas as they position themselves for whatever or whoever is next. Like Trotskyists for whom communism always remained an unfulfilled ideal, conservatives now claim that conservatism has not been tried, and that Bush is a "betrayer" and "impostor." In his attempt to avoid the nemesis of his father, he is reliving it.