Try this for a picture:
The nation with a president whose Investor's Business Daily Leadership Index stands at 41, a nine-point plunge since August; Republicans, who, during his presidency have rated him as high as 95, now rate him at only 79. Declining support for the American presence in Iraq. Deficit spending at record levels, with more to come for Katrina recovery. Gasoline at $3 per gallon, and big jitters over the prospect of winter heating bills double those of just a year ago.
General Motors maybe about to go toes-up; Alcoa and others hurting, big-time. Social Security reform and estate tax repeal off the table. Conservatives balking at cutting pork from spending bills to pay for Katrina; liberals lamenting that all suggested amounts are too little. Tom DeLay in the dock and Bill Frist maybe about to be; the Plame-leak investigation possibly moving toward a similar fate for Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration.
The Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination encountering heavy flak from conservatives - with liberals on the sidelines secretly smiling. The left niggling a Bush speech about the war against terror, wherein he spoke of the determination of an enemy "never tired, never sated, never content with yesterday's brutality" and driven by "a radical ideology with inalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world."
Rarely, if ever, do the records show such a swift, abrupt turnaround in presidential approval.
The principal precipitators? Katrina and Harriet Miers.
Regarding the former: Rightly or wrongly, Bush took huge hits - and ultimately took responsibility for a lame federal response. Never mind that his offers of quick National Guard assistance to Louisiana and New Orleans, at least, were initially rejected. And never mind that his proposal to federalize key aspects of disaster relief, possibly the only realistic answer over the long term, faces mounting criticism.
Regarding the latter: Key conservative constituencies look on the Miers nomination as a lost opportunity. Never mind Bush's knowledge of her work over many years. Never mind that he and she evidently share similar evangelical religious views. (Question: Does rising resistance to Miers from the left suggest from that sector elements of the very religious intolerance it so diligently deplores?) And never mind that in none of his nominations to the appellate courts - or in his successful nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court - has Bush betrayed his pledge to offer individuals committed to strict constitutional and statutory interpretation.
So what is it about this, perhaps the fastest fall in presidential approval?
The ideologization of the right.
For decades, a conservative ideology - a set of "correct" views forming a lens through which one views reality - did not exist. The conservative movement, such as it was, contained former communists and anti-communists, free marketers and compassionists and private-sector welfarists; unionists (Ronald Reagan's "hardhats") and those driven by a commitment to the Taft-Hartley Law's section 14-B; Burkeans, traditionalists, libertarians, religionists, and believers in living one's life according to an individualized secular virtue; neocon refugees from the liberal swamp.
The conservative umbrella kept the rain off all these disparates; the conservative tent had room for just about anyone.
Conservatives took over the Republican Party and drove it to political power. On their way to consolidating power, two things happened:
1. They demonstrated time and again that they were not particularly good at government - that in many ways they don't do the governing thing well, often not so well as liberal Democrats.
2. They coalesced around a set of views and values one generally had to embrace in order to have one's claim of allegiance to the conservative flag accepted.
As President, Bush has deviated from the ideologized conservative norm - particularly in federal spending and federal intrusiveness. In his federally financed compassionate conservatism, the notion of limited government disappears up the chimney. It may be that truly compassionate conservatism can be achieved in no other way. Yet following Katrina, which dismayingly put human faces on the sterile data of poverty, the Bush commitment of a $200 billion solution hardly conforms to any tenet of today's conservative ideology.
And the Miers nomination joined the Katrina response in breaking the back of certain conservatives' trust in Bush's devotion to the Ten (or however many there may be) Conservative Commandments.
The fundamental political problem in Washington and many state capitols is not so much the division between Republican and Democrat or between conservative and liberal, as a division among Republicans. Many have failed to work with the others; now, Katrina and Miers may prove to be bridges too far. Major realignment may be in process, with the Democrats the principal beneficiaries in the short term.
Can they capitalize on Republican/conservative division in the long term? It's difficult to believe Howard Dean will attract many disaffected Republican conservatives. Ditto regarding Al Gore, that profound thinker (and self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet), who these days is saying such weighty things as (a) declaring "American democracy in grave danger" from within, and (b) pronouncing dead "the marketplace of ideas that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders" - a datum that will come as major news to many people.
Another Democratic heavyweight - James Carville - said the other day, "Sometimes the problem with being a Democrat is being a Democrat." To paraphrase what Israel's U.N. ambassador Abba Eban said famously of the Palestinians: So devoid of energy and ideas are today's Democrats that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Certainly it's premature to count Bush and the conservative Republicans out. But they need to get their game together - and soon.