The election was only six weeks ago, and New Year’s Day is less than three weeks away. This is supposed to be a quiet time, filled with holiday gatherings, family meals, festive songs and a carol with the word “silent” in its title. Not this year. No one can say all is calm, all is bright.
Instead, this period has been full of contention — in the Middle East, Missouri, New York, Washington. There have been efforts to shut down the government and to shut off racial protests. It turns out that not only the season’s Hanukkah dreidels are made of clay. So, too, are the feet of Washington leaders.
But the cool, crisp air of this holiday season has brought some clarity to our politics, showing us a two-handed president and a right-handed Congress. Here’s how things look midway between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Barack Obama’s approval ratings remain weak. Only slightly more than two-fifths of the public, in the RealClearPolitics polling average, approve of his performance. While Harry Truman once despaired of his inability to find a “one-handed economist,” Mr. Obama is the two-handed president.
On the one hand, his unilateral immigration initiative is consistent with actions taken by former presidents, including Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. On the other hand, it is clear he is moving ahead in willful defiance of Congress and contrary to the November election results. His fellow Democrats may find themselves throwing both hands in the air if he is succeeded by a Republican who uses the Obama precedent to defy Congress.
On the one hand, Mr. Obama’s election as the first black president is a powerful symbol of racial conciliation. On the other hand, his apparent inability to quell racial tensions, in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., is a symbol of his political weakness.
On the one hand, Mr. Obama has prevailed in landmark struggles to win an early economic stimulus and a comprehensive health care overhaul. On the other hand, his other priorities are stalled on Capitol Hill with almost no chance of resuscitation in the 114th Congress, which convenes early next month.
On the one hand, the economy has made a tentative recovery, with unemployment at 5.8 percent, down from 10.0 percent in October 2009, and with very encouraging job creation in this month’s report. On the other hand, consumer confidence as calculated by the Conference Board is at 88.7, down from 94.1 the previous month. This is critical in the holiday-gift season.
These are the last days of the Democratic Senate and the fact that the GOP majority grew by one seat last week with the defeat of Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has fueled Republicans’ confidence as they look toward 2015.
The year will open with the Democrats in the minority and in despair. The president may be operating with two hands, but the Democrats are operating with one hand tied behind their backs.
That’s not the case with the Republicans, though there remain great divisions within the party, as last week’s spending debate illuminated. These divisions are greater, and have deeper roots, than those in the Democratic Party.
Shorn of its northeastern Rockefeller-style liberals and moderates, the Republicans now are a conservative party, just as the Democrats are a liberal party. But the tensions within the GOP grow out of a long-term debate over just how conservative it should be, and whether a party that once was hierarchical, and still is business-friendly, ought to have an establishment profile.
For three generations, the Republican establishment has been a powerful force within the party, which may sound like a tautology but isn’t. That’s because for three generations there have been rebels on the right trying to shake off the party’s complacency and easy-does-it approach. Barry Goldwater in 1960 described Eisenhower as running a “dime-store New Deal,” a critique that stung then and retains its power today.
It is illuminating to compare two dynastic Republican families over those three decades.
One is the Bush family, beginning with Prescott Bush, the courtly senator from Connecticut; followed by his son George H. W. Bush, the very model of the Greenwich, Conn., establishment even when he had a Midland, Texas, home address; followed by another presidential son, George W. Bush.
The other, less-celebrated dynasty involves the Bozells. L. Brent Bozell Jr. was married to William F. Buckley’s sister and was an influential backer of Mr. Goldwater. His son, L. Brent Bozell III, was an important figure in the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Conservative Political Action Committee and the conservative Media Research Center. And the next Bozell, David Bozell, is the executive director of ForAmerica, which organized a White House call-in this summer and has mobilized what it describes as a conservative “digital army.”
These two families — though with roots in long-ago Yale friendships — both describe themselves as Republicans and as conservatives, but their outlooks sometimes diverge. The senior Bozell was the ghostwriter for Mr. Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” and, although 1964 Senate candidate George H.W. Bush appeared at Goldwater rallies, he made it clear he was not — his term — an “extremist.” Mr. Bush always was more comfortable with the word “prudent.”
Years later, in his Media Research Center column, L. Brent Bozell III would express disappointment that in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama “made no generous bow to all the efforts of his predecessor George W. Bush as well as his team.”
All this raises the question of how the Bozell wing of the conservative movement, which is generally impatient with the party’s moderate impulses, might react to a presidential campaign undertaken by an establishment Republican such as former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.
The day after the midterm elections returned the Senate to Republican control, David Bozell put out a statement saying that “no moderate won by running on a moderate agenda” and adding: “They campaigned as conservatives, now they must govern as conservatives.” He argued that the GOP triumph was “not because of the Republican establishment in Washington.”
With control of both houses, the Republicans are the establishment on Capitol Hill, a position that might leave some conservatives unsettled even as Democrats are uncomfortable with their minority position. In both parties, all is not bright and all is not calm.