This column was written by Andrew Ferguson.
Laura Bush delivered a lot of jokes during her now-famous stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, but one of them touched a real sore spot. Not the joke about milking the horse. This one: "I said to him the other day, 'George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later.'" When the joke was replayed over and over again on TV, a cry rose up from every corner of this sweet and verdant land: "No, no, George, don't stay up later! You just go on to bed! You're doing too much already! Really!"
Or maybe that was just me. In any case, Mrs. Bush's joke points to something important in our present political moment, four very busy months into her husband's very busy second term. It even sheds light on those discouraging poll numbers that have lately troubled all the president's men and his publicists in the press. The president himself, of course, pays no attention to polls.
And a good thing, too, because Bush's job approval ratings are now at the lowest point of his time in office down to 47 percent in the latest Washington Post poll, 48 percent in USA Today's. In the Post poll, the number of people who "strongly approve" of his job performance, which for most of the last four years has roughly matched the percentage of people who "strongly disapprove," has fallen to 25 percent, while the strong disapprovers have surged to 38 percent.
A solid majority, 56 percent, approve of Bush's handling of the "U.S. campaign against terrorism." From there, the numbers head south. Only 42 percent approve the way Bush has conducted the Iraq war, and 54 percent now say they believe the war should never have been fought. Forty percent approve his handling of the economy. With gas prices high, approval of Bush's energy policy is low: 35 percent. Even lower, though, is the percentage approving Bush's signature domestic initiative: 31 percent approve, and 64 percent disapprove, of the president's handling of Social Security.
These gloomy data follow the Terri Schiavo affair, when very large majorities -- up to 70 percent in some polls -- expressed their distaste for the effort by Bush and congressional Republicans to encourage federal courts to take up her case.
Scanning the poll numbers, Dean David Broder of the Washington Post announced that Bush is the victim of "overreach." John Podhoretz, in theNew York Post, came up with a better tag and got closer to the nub. The public, he wrote, may be suffering from "Issue Fatigue" -- an overload of public policy proposals and the politicking that goes with them. "While [Bush] refused to allow himself to rest after the 2004 election," Podhoretz wrote, "the American people seem to have desperately wanted a break." Both Podhoretz and the Dean are on to something, but what if they don't go far enough? Bush's problem may be more elemental. Overreach, and the resulting fatigue of the public, may be the inevitable consequences of the way Bush approaches his job -- it might, in other words, be built into his governing philosophy.
That philosophy has become known, with appropriate clumsiness, as "big government conservatism," and its intricacies, such as they are, have been laid out with customary self-congratulation by one White House triumphalist after another, most recently by Karl Rove in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. "We are seizing the mantle of idealism," Rove said. A lot of this idealism is vague and cottony in the Clinton manner, with empty, harmless vows to "foster" a "culture of service" in a "new generation," and so on.
But a lot of it requires tremendous amounts of mobilization and hectoring. In foreign affairs, of course, there is the president's spectacular pledge to end tyranny in our world, which has entailed two wars so far. Domestically, Rove said, the president's idealism has targeted "the tax code, health care, pension plans, legal system, public education, worker training," and, he threatened, even more. In the old days, conservatism was "largely reactionary," Rove noted. Under Bush, on the other hand, conservatives have become "agents of reform," just as liberals used to be. And if we have to stay up late to fix America, fine.
The president's plan to redo Social Security is the opening salvo in this campaign to transform the institutions of American society. The difficulties he has encountered in persuading the public to go along with him might strike a prudent man as a warning that he's pushing things a little too far. But prudence -- like caution, diffidence, a sense of limits -- was a quality that distinguished yesterday's conservatism, not today's. Agents of reform move in one direction only. So rather than withdraw his attempt at "modernizing" Social Security, the president and his men have responded by making their reform more complicated. Most recently he's embraced a plan devised by a John Kerry supporter to make the system an even more progressive means of transferring wealth than it already is. And don't forget: The tax system is next. When it comes to conservative reform, reform, not conservatism, is in the driver's seat.
Conservative reform, in fact, turns out to be a lot like liberal reform. Each involves a whirlwind of government activity. Each is a formula for politics without end -- splendid indeed for politicians and government employees, but a bit tiring for the rest of us. Who can blame the public for beginning to show its weariness? The fatigue came to a head in the Schiavo case, and the president's poll numbers have yet to recover.
In the view of many people (me included) Bush's intervention in Schiavo's plight was a brave and noble endeavor; he and the Republican Congress had sound and principled reasons for doing what they did. But those reasons never stirred the public. What the public saw instead, apparently, was an army of busybodies from the White House and Congress, prying their thick fingers into a heartbreaking family dispute, and compounding the horror because they refused to control their impulse to set matters right. You don't have to try too hard to imagine the questions that arose in the public mind. Is there nothing these big-government guys won't get involved in? Ending tyranny, democratizing the Middle East, revolutionizing public education, fooling around with my pension, re-doing the tax code from top to bottom -- and now they want to second-guess this poor woman's caretakers? Where's the self-restraint? Where's the modesty?
A lack of modesty and self-restraint is one excellent reason Americans grew to despise liberals in the first place. The high-water mark of American liberalism came in 1993 and 1994, when President Clinton and his wife, under the guise of "health care reform," decided they would assume control of one-seventh of the nation's economy in order to make it more rational and fair. Voters responded by handing the federal legislature to the Republican party. History may record that what offended them wasn't liberalism but busybodyism -- the endless, frenetic search by elected officials for ever-new ways to make the country more fabulous. Bush and his Republicans are close to proving that busybodyism can become a creature of the right as well as the left.
And the public seems not to like it, whichever direction it comes from. Maybe, under certain circumstances, what people really do want -- pace Laura Bush -- is a president who goes to bed early and wakes up late. Maybe they wouldn't mind a president who spent a lot more time on his ranch, trying to milk the horses instead of us.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
By Andrew Ferguson