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Thursday, October 20, 2005 - Magazine Article - Magazine Article

Republican Fissures Imperil Bush Agenda
Oxford Analytica, 10.20.05, 6:00 AM ET

President George W. Bush is struggling to contain criticism from conservative activists upset by his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. The Bush Administration is for the first time facing serious dissent from within the Republican Party.

Bush has experienced a steady decline in political momentum throughout 2005. After setting out an expansive program at home and abroad in his January Inaugural Address and February State of the Union speech, the president struggled to impose his agenda in Congress and rally public support. Despite these setbacks, the broader conservative movement and Republican Party remained essentially loyal to the Administration. Therefore, the present public discontent within the Republican Party is unprecedented during the president's time in Washington. For observers beyond the Washington "beltway," the origins of these troubles may be opaque:

-- Improved Standing. Bush's overall public approval ratings, while unimpressive, have recovered from their nadir during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that embarrassed the White House.

-- Washington Scandals. Several "scandals" have emerged involving figures close to the president, although thus far they have created a greater stir in the Washington press corps than among the public at large.

While these difficulties--and the fear that they might imperil the Republican majorities on Capitol Hill in the November 2006 midterm election--have disturbed conservatives, they are not at the core of current intra-Party warfare. Republican operatives have spent years cobbling together an effective governing coalition. Until now, the White House has been adept at playing to this hard core of conservative support. However, events and White House policy choices have recently aggravated three distinct sections of the conservative movement:

1. Fiscal Conservatives. The "big government" conservatism associated with the Bush White House has long caused resentment among fiscal conservatives. This section of the Republican Party expressed particular distaste concerning:

-- expanded federal funding for education;

-- the addition an expensive prescription-drug benefit package to the to the Medicare old-age health care program; and

-- ballooning federal budget deficits throughout the Bush Administration.

These irritants were tolerated, in part, because of the imperatives of the "war on terror" and the drive to establish a stable Republican majority in Washington. However, victory in the 2004 elections suggested that the latter objective had been secured, and fiscal conservatives began to push for austerity during the Bush second term.

Recently, two factors have pushed fiscal conservatives into open revolt:

Congressional "Pork." There was concern over Bush's July decision to sign the $286 billion Transportation Bill.

Katrina Costs. There was unhappiness over the president's policy to federalize spending on the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

2. Social Conservatives. Bush could afford a degree of discontent among fiscal conservatives, provided that he retained the backing of his socially conservative bedrock. This group was pleased by the Roberts nomination. The political sophistication of that appointment led activists to assume that a similarly effective strategy would be employed to nominate a right wing ideologue to the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. These high hopes caused the overwhelming majority of social conservatives to greet the appointment of Miers with disappointment or outrage. This is a particularly critical nomination, because O'Connor frequently served as a moderate swing vote on the Court. Even those conservatives who are willing to tolerate the Miers appointment have scant enthusiasm for it.

3. Foreign Policy Conservatives. Although it has been less public than either fiscal or social conservative dissent, the course of events in Iraq has exacerbated fissures between traditional foreign policy "realists" and their antagonists in the small, influential faction that provided the primary impetus for the Iraq War. The continued difficulty establishing a secure and stable democratic regime in Iraq has also raised questions about the broader objective of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

These conservative divisions have the potential to cripple the White House political and legislative agenda. The Republican majorities in Congress are not large by historical standards, and may be especially sensitive to internal Party fissures.

Republican infighting presents the White House with both short-term and long-term challenges:

1. Short-Term Hazard. For the moment, the conflict between the White House and social conservatives over the Miers nomination looms large. However, its fallout, either way, will not endure. Bush's vigorous defense of her appointment will either force social conservatives to put aside their doubts, or her nomination will collapse, and a chastened president will be obliged to produce another name more acceptable to his base.

2. Longer-Term Split. The emerging chasm with fiscal conservatives is far more serious. A long-suppressed disagreement about the basic character of Republican government has opened and will not easily be closed. Fiscal conservatives in Congress will attempt to introduce major spending reductions. The initiative will probably earn the support of the majority of the House caucus but be resisted by a coalition of centrist Republicans, leading committee chairmen and Democrats.

3. Subtle Danger. The Administration risks finding itself defending an Iraq policy that is attacked for an overly slow pace of troop withdrawals by Democrats and an overly rapid pullout by the right.

Republican jockeying to succeed Bush further complicates the political picture for the White House. The two most high-profile potential candidates are Sens. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Neither is close to the Party's conservative base. A number of more right wing senators are considering a run, but need to boost their cause by increasing their national name recognition. At the moment, the easiest way to raise their profiles is to support aggrieved conservative constituencies against the White House.

Given that the Administration's current woes are mainly the product of Republican fratricide, there is little incentive for the Democratic Party to inject itself in the debate. Instead, the Democrats will pursue a counter-punching strategy, which includes:

-- vigorously pursuing emerging scandals among the congressional leadership and the Administration;

-- focusing on Miers' inexperience rather than her ideology; and

-- simultaneously portraying Republicans on Capitol Hill as fiscally irresponsible, and callous for cutting social welfare programs such as Medicaid.

The paradox of these internal difficulties for Bush is that they may prove to have little bearing on his public standing in the polls. If the economy strengthens, and the Iraqi security situation improves, it is conceivable that Bush's approval ratings could creep back above 50%.

Emerging divisions within the Republican Party represent a greater danger to the president's capacity to govern than low public opinion-poll ratings. The greatest challenge to his authority may come from fiscal conservatives upset by runaway spending on Iraq, Katrina and social programs, rather than social conservatives challenging Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court.

To read an extended version of this article log on to Oxford Analytica's Web site.

Oxford Analytica is an independent strategic consulting firm drawing on a network of more than 1,000 scholar experts at Oxford and other leading universities and research institutions around the world. For more information please visit, and to find out how to subscribe to the firm's Daily Brief Service, click here.

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