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The Loneliest President

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For Collins, who like 20 other Senate GOP incumbents is up for reelection in 2008, the solution is relatively simple: Run as fast and as far away from the president as her pumps will carry her. Infinitely more complicated—and more perilous—are the calculations facing the crop of Republican presidential wannabes. All recognize that getting nominated by an overwhelmingly conservative primary electorate more or less requires sticking with the president. Yet all realize that being implicated further in the greatest foreign-policy calamity in a generation could doom them in a general election. The horns of this dilemma are jabbing with particularly violent force into the side of John McCain, who six months ago was widely viewed by the political class as our likeliest next president—but whose position now, with the body count in Baghdad destined to rise instead of fall for at least another year, seems conspicuously more tenuous.

Meanwhile, Bush’s gambit has only strengthened and emboldened the Democrats. By consensus, newly minted Virginia senator Jim Webb’s brisk and forceful State of the Union response was the best such Democratic riposte in years; more to the point, it signaled that the party, long cowed by the fear of being portrayed as McGovernite pansies on matters of national security, may at last see political advantage in adopting a more assertive voice. At the same time, by doubling down on a losing hand, Bush has only buttressed the appeal of putative anti-warriors John Edwards and Barack Obama. He’s even provided Hillary Clinton what she’s long been craving: a way of plausibly positioning herself as standing athwart his plans for Iraq despite having voted to authorize them at the start.

Maybe it’s true what many Republicans suspect: Bush doesn’t care a whit anymore about the future of the party. But you’d think that, if he really wishes not merely “to warm the seat,” he would care about his capacity to chalk up a few domestic wins before the clock runs out. Yet Bush seems to believe that the pursuit of such victories won’t be terminally impeded by the furor without end over Iraq. To which the only reply must be: Fat chance, bub.

To any impartial observer, the conclusion here is fairly inescapable: We are looking at a presidency that is, for all practical political purposes, finished—except to the extent that Bush can wreak more havoc by means of his monomania. The cynical interpretation of his recent moves is that he is stalling, trying to buy himself a few more months of time, praying that something, anything, will happen in Iraq that will let him claim a kind of victory, however trifling or evanescent. But I don’t quite buy that theory. The more convincing explanation is that Bush believes he is playing for history now—hence his obsessive focus on the single issue that he believes, rightly, will define his legacy. Where we see a failed president in Bush, he looks in the mirror and sees himself as a leader who pursued a burdensome, painful path and whose vindication will be meted out long after he has left office. As a righteous man who forged ahead in the face of weak-willed and wrongheaded opposition, in particular the impulse toward appeasement. As Harry Truman. As Winston Churchill.

Pathological narcissism? Delusions of grandeur? Res ipsa loquitur. There have been other presidents, of course, who could readily be described as suffering from these same maladies. (All of them, you could argue.) But not since Richard Nixon has Washington seen a case so severe—or so tragic. Today, Bush’s poll numbers are mired at Nixonian levels circa Watergate. He is similarly isolated, similarly aggrieved, similarly blinded to his own faults and follies. Similarly out to lunch, that is. (Though he hasn’t yet invited Dick Cheney to pray with him in the Oval Office—at least as far as we know.) And he is also similarly unloved and unlamented by the very pols who so recently fetishized and fawned over him.

How unloved? How unlamented? After the State of the Union, ABC’s political director, Mark Halperin, speculated that, if a secret ballot were held in Congress to end the Bush presidency, it would pass “by a margin of, oh, 500 to 35.” In a week of shopping that hypothetical on the Hill, I found not a single person ready to dispute it.


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