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Intel bill sets stage for GOP turmoil

For the most part, the Democrats are irrelevant to governance here now, with shrunken numbers in Congress and, for the moment, few new ideas or stars on the rise. The dramatic tension in the capital will instead be provided by Bush’s (and Dick Cheney’s) battles with fellow Republicans here and across the country on a host of contentious topics.

It was intermission at the Kennedy Center awards and I found myself in the crowded, red-carpeted foyer standing next to Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate and, as such, President Bush’s point man on Capitol Hill. Being the suave, personable guy I am (Not!), I asked him, “So, senator, are you going to get that intelligence bill through?” He winced. “I think so, but it’s been tough. The only good thing about it is that the problems we’ve had will lower expectations. We’ve got a majority, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to get things done.”

It was understandable that Frist, the surgical Tennessean, would take the opportunity (between tributes to Joan Sutherland and Elton John) for a little spin-doctoring because he’s right: The intra-party battle between the Bush White House and recalcitrant House Republicans is just the overture to the opera, a discordant melody we’re going to hear over and over again during the next two years.

For the most part, the Democrats are irrelevant to governance here now, with shrunken numbers in Congress and, for the moment, few new ideas or stars on the rise. The dramatic tension in the capital will instead be provided by Bush’s (and Dick Cheney’s) battles with fellow Republicans here and across the country on a host of contentious topics.

Here's a list of some of the issues and leaders involved:

Here’s where Karl Rove’s desire to expand the GOP base by reaching out to Hispanics runs headlong into practical concerns and an anti-immigration strain in the history of the party. The divisions were exposed in, of all places, the bill to bring all of the government’s vast intelligence-gathering powers under a new National Intelligence Director. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (a state Rove targeted but lost) used the measure to try to insist that, by federal law, illegal immigrants be barred from getting a driver’s license. That may sound perfectly sensible in the Upper Midwest, but it is a far more contentious question in states such as California and Florida, where you can argue — as many Latino leaders do — that a driver’s license is as much a necessity as food and water to immigrants eager to play a useful part in society as they argue over their legal status in this country. Many “movement” conservatives — the kind Rove called on to build Bush’s political base over the years — agree with Sensenbrenner. And beyond the specific issue of driver’s licenses is a deep tradition of skepticism about open-door immigration policies, which Republicans worked to restrict in the 1920s and 1950s. Some conservatives consider it the number one issue.   

Taxes and spending
For decades, the Democrats controlled Congress and spent money with abandon while Republicans, hunched over their balance sheets with mechanical pencils and complained. Now the situation is reversed, and a newly powerful and profligate GOP shovels out the cash with Democratic-like abandon. Rove’s GOP even has created a new category of pork: the holy kind, doled out to religious institutions that do welfare work. Still, a few hearty GOP budget balancers remain, and I think their ranks are going to grow as corporate executives and Main Street shopkeepers alike grow worried about America’s role as the deadbeat superpower of the planet Earth. The Sensenbrenner of this issue could be Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who inherits the Budget Cassandra role from his retiring Democratic colleague, Fritz Hollings. Soon enough — in this coming Congress, I bet — Bush’s desire to make all of his tax cuts permanent will run up against some truly scary budget numbers. Supply-side theory rules the party — for now, but perhaps not forever. Now Bush’s plan is to borrow perhaps $2 trillion for the “transition” to private Social Security accounts. Will the Republicans go for it? It’s hard to believe that all of them will be willing to do so.

There is, and remains, an isolationist strain in the GOP. For now, that emotion seems to have been channeled into the immigration issue, but, if you travel the country, you hear a nagging question among what I would describe as Main Street Republicans: What they heck are we doing in Iraq? The president may think he has answered this question once and for all in his own party (the exit polls would seem to indicate that) but I have to wonder about it. Who might lead an anti-neocon crusade to question Bush’s Wilsonian ideas about spreading democracy through pre-emptive warfare? Well, there’s always Pat Buchanan, but I can’t believe he’ll be the only one in this parade in a year or two.

Any tide sweeps some odd creatures onto the beach and this last election was no exception. The Bush White House is likely to have some interested conversations with the likes of, say, newly elected Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a doctor who is a militant foe of abortion and condom-distribution programs and an equally militant proponent of abstinence as the only viable way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. I know one senior Republican with ties to Oklahoma who has been asked by the White House to, as he put it, “help educate” Coburn — meaning to try encourage him to keep a low profile. But he’s not a shy type and the media knows a story when it sees one. ...Meanwhile, several of the party’s most popular non-Washington leaders remain far to the left of the president on issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and gay rights. In other words, there is another party and his name is Arnold.

The senator from Arizona has tried hard to be a team player, campaigning loyally and enthusiastically with the president, traveling (most recently) to Oxford and Dublin to make the case for Bush’s foreign policy in front of hostile audiences of students. But McCain is McCain, and the president (and Bill Frist) are going to need to monitor his whereabouts politically on a host of issues. For now, the senator is in substantial agreement with the Bush agenda. For now.

The Republicans control nearly three-fifths of the nation’s governorships and, as a group, are getting a bit ticked (though they rarely say so publicly) at the former Republican governor who happens to occupy the Oval Office. Even before 9/11, part of the Bush-Rove agenda was to amass more power in Washington (see the Leave No Child Behind education act), impose more rules on the states (see the same) and hamper the ability of the states to collect more tax revenue for themselves (including the continuing federal ban on taxing internet transactions). Post 9/11 the urge to centralize power in the name of security is great, and what little autonomy local law enforcement and investigators had is vanishing into the maw of the Feds. Who will complain? Who knows, maybe even the governor of Florida — he could probably still get his brother on the line.

If you look at it, Bush is not a “conservative,” at least as that word was used until recently. He’s not a fiscal conservative, especially not if he’s proposing to borrow trillions on a bet that the stock market will support Social Security. He’s not conservative in the sense of being wary of new governmental ideas — his agenda is brimming with proposals that call for radical, fundamental transformations in the role of government. He isn't conservative in the old “states-rights” way and, after 9/11 it might well be foolish to expect him to be. He is a conservative on social issues — especially on abortion and the definition of marriage — but is that enough to keep all the other voters who call themselves conservatives happy? We’re about to find out.