New York Times, April 21, 2006
''I have a vision -- maybe just a hope -- of a great revulsion: a moment in which the American people look at what is happening, realize how their good will and patriotism have been abused, and put a stop to this drive to destroy much of what is best in our country.''
I wrote those words three years ago in the introduction to my column collection, ''The Great Unraveling.'' It seemed a remote prospect at the time: Baghdad had just fallen to U.S. troops, and President Bush had a 70 percent approval rating.
Now the great revulsion has arrived. The latest Fox News poll puts Mr. Bush's approval at only 33 percent. According to the polling firm Survey USA, there are only four states in which significantly more people approve of Mr. Bush's performance than disapprove: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska. If we define red states as states where the public supports Mr. Bush, Red America now has a smaller population than New York City.
The proximate causes of Mr. Bush's plunge in the polls are familiar: the heck of a job he did responding to Katrina, the prescription drug debacle and, above all, the quagmire in Iraq.
But focusing too much on these proximate causes makes Mr. Bush's political fall from grace seem like an accident, or the result of specific missteps. That gets things backward. In fact, Mr. Bush's temporarily sky-high approval ratings were the aberration; the public never supported his real policy agenda.
Remember, in 2000 Mr. Bush got within hanging-chad and felon-purge distance of the White House only by pretending to be a moderate. In 2004 he ran on fear and smear, plus the pretense that victory in Iraq was just around the corner. (I've always thought that the turning point of the 2004 campaign was the September 2004 visit of the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a figurehead appointed by the Bush administration who rewarded his sponsors by presenting a falsely optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq.)
The real test of the conservative agenda came after the 2004 election, when Mr. Bush tried to sell the partial privatization of Social Security.
Social Security was for economic conservatives what Iraq was for the neocons, a soft target that they thought would pave the way for bigger conquests. And there couldn't have been a more favorable moment for privatization than the winter of 2004-2005: Mr. Bush loved to assert that he had a ''mandate'' from the election; Republicans held solid, disciplined majorities in both houses of Congress; and many prominent political pundits were in favor of private accounts.
Yet Mr. Bush's drive on Social Security ran into a solid wall of public opposition, and collapsed within a few months. And if Social Security couldn't be partly privatized under those conditions, the conservative dream of dismantling the welfare state is nothing but a fantasy.
So what's left of the conservative agenda? Not much.
That's not a prediction for the midterm elections. The Democrats will almost surely make gains, but the electoral system is rigged against them. The fewer than eight million residents of what's left of Red America are represented by eight U.S. senators; the more than eight million residents of New York City have to share two senators with the rest of New York State.
Meanwhile, a combination of accident and design has left likely Democratic voters bunched together -- I'm tempted to say ghettoized -- in a minority of Congressional districts, while likely Republican voters are more widely spread out. As a result, Democrats would need a landslide in the popular vote -- something like an advantage of 8 to 10 percentage points over Republicans -- to take control of the House of Representatives. That's a real possibility, given the current polls, but by no means a certainty.
And there is also, of course, the real prospect that Mr. Bush will change the subject by bombing Iran.
Still, in the long run it may not matter that much. If the Democrats do gain control of either house of Congress, and with it the ability to issue subpoenas, a succession of scandals will be revealed in the final years of the Bush administration. But even if the Republicans hang on to their ability to stonewall, it's hard to see how they can resurrect their agenda.
In retrospect, then, the 2004 election looks like the high-water mark of a conservative tide that is now receding.