Rove's aim was to entice low-to-middle income seniors who vote heavily Democratic and complain about the cost of prescription drugs. That political maneuver was translated by bureaucrats and health-care technicians into a government program so difficult to understand that someone now receiving any prescription drug care would be inclined to stick with the present program even if it seems inadequate. For many whose existing insurance does not help pay drug bills, the Bush program is only a disappointment.
An earlier Bush attempt to co-opt the opposition also failed. The "no child left behind" education bill was passed in 2001 only after considerable arm-twisting of conservatives, but it has not produced political dividends. The president remains as unpopular as ever inside the education establishment, where school administrators complain about constant testing and paperwork required by the act.
Loyalty is the watchword among Bush administration officials, particularly White House aides. Consequently, George W. Bush in the course of his working day is unlikely to hear a discouraging word.
One mid-level presidential appointee, however, laid out for me the parameters of Bush's predicament with three full years remaining of his presidency. Bush is essentially a war president, leading the nation to fight an unpopular war that promises no temporary victories much less a final one, and at best offers the prospect of withdrawal from Iraq with honor. He needs something to energize the nation in his second term, but he has failed to do that with Social Security reform and has not even tried with tax reform. There is no clear sign the president appreciates the size of his problem.
Now, to begin his sixth year in office, Medicare drug benefits come into play, a major new entitlement that offends Bush's friends and does not placate his foes. There is not much at this point that can be done about it, except to try to convince seniors and conservatives that the program is really not that bad.