Meet the Base

George W. Bush fails, once again, to energize his core supporters.

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One of the more startling political discoveries of late has been that there are people on the right who think George W. Bush is doing a lousy job as president. To take the two most salient examples, fiscal conservatives are eyeing the mega-deficit with growing alarm, and Iraq hawks, some of them, are starting to admit doubts about the administration’s handling of prewar intelligence.

The American electorate being almost perfectly divided between reds and blues, Bush can’t afford to turn off his base; every vote counts.
Which may explain the widely noted red-meat partisanship of his State of the Union address, and the decision, rare for this president, to sit for a TV interview this weekend. Bush’s hour-long head-to-head with Tim Russert presented Bush with an opportunity to dismiss doubts about his leadership and shore up support from his core support.

(As Tom Shales points out in the Washington Post, “When the matter of the election came up, Bush exuded confidence … But if he and his inner circle were that confident, Bush wouldn’t have been giving the interview in the first place.”)

In the event, Bush’s performance didn’t make much of an impact either way, which, given his sagging poll numbers, probably translates to a net loss.

Former Reagan and Bush, Sr. speechwriter Peggy Noonan notes from the great height of the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion page:

“The Big Russ interview will not be a big political story in terms of Bush supporters suddenly turning away from their man.

So I’m not sure he disturbed his base. I think he just failed to inspire his base. Which is serious enough–the base was looking for inspiration, and needed it–but not exactly fatal.

Hardly a ringing endorsement.

The conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who has lately been increasingly hard on Bush,
detects a certain hesitancy in the president.

“During the part of the interview when Bush could have strongly supported his nation-building in Iraq, and linked it to tackling the deeper problems that gave us 9/11, he was defensive and almost apologetic. I wonder: does he actually regret being a nation-builder? … In this kind of enterprise we need conviction at the top. At least more conviction than we saw yesterday.”

And conservative blogger Joshua Claybourn
unpacks Bush’s claim that “If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.”

Says Claybourn:

“This is deceptive and false. Discretionary spending has not declined, and most definitely not “steadily” declined. Discretionary spending has increased by 15% during Bush’s first two years in office, more than it did during Clinton’s first four years. Total outlays fell under Mr. Clinton, from 22.2 percent of the GDP to 18.4 percent of the GDP in 2000. By 2002, the budget consumed 19.5 percent of the GDP.”

Arnold Beichman, a scholar at the Hoover Institution, writes in the National Review Online that Bush needs to “stop being defensive about the intelligence failure,” and shift his emphasis to the question of whether “the world, especially the Middle East, better off with the overthrow and capture of Saddam Hussein?” (Er, hasn’t he been doing that? A lot?)

Bush’s backers were watching his style as well as his message. He looked worn out by hard work, Noonan says, but also nervous and touchy — never an attractive combination:

“Otherwise, in terms of content, not a great deal new emerged from the interview. With television, though, style can easily be content, and Bush, from the outset of the session, came across as defensive and slightly, subtly agitated, with that “I’d rather be anywhere else right now” demeanor hiding behind his careful smile. “

Bush, concludes Noonan, might better “spend the next nine months giving speeches, and limit interviews.”


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