The Invincible President

"President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of I. Lewis Libby Jr. was the act of a liberated man," wrote The New York Times. "A leader who knows that, with 18 months left in the Oval Office and only a dwindling band of conservatives still behind him, he might as well do what he wants."

If the Buddha and Machiavelli had a child, this would be the type of liberation he'd speak about: Liberation from the suffering imposed by democratic checks and balances. It is a liberation George W. Bush has pursued with a single-minded vigor. From the beginning, he has consciously sought to govern from division, realizing early on that popularity can actually constrain an administration, and consensus is just another word for compromise.

And now, in the latter half of his second term, at 20-some percent in the polls, he has achieved full liberation from shackles of public opinion and congressional approval. In his solitude, he is virtually invincible.

Among the first to notice this strange strategy was The Prospect's own Mark Schmitt. Back in 2004, despite the GOP's control of all three branches of government, he observed that they seemed to be passing legislation by surprisingly slim margins.

"Hastert and DeLay's insight," wrote Schmitt, "seems to be that a bill that gets 218 votes in the House is just as much the law as one that gets 430. And for every vote they add on to the necessary minimum majority, they might have to compromise in some unnecessary way, whether with Democrats or their own fiscal conservatives. In other words, they see every vote over a bare majority as the equivalent of leaving money on the table or overbidding in an auction."

This was a radical shift. It used to be that the parties sought consensus, seeking safety in popularity. If the opposition had bought into your bill, they couldn't campaign against it. What the Republican Party, under the leadership of Bush and Rove, realized, was that they didn't have to campaign on their legislation. They could campaign on the perfidy of the opposition.

And if that was to be your strategy, there was no sense in letting the other party sign onto your legislation -- that would actually undermine your electoral appeal. So bills that could have garnered Democratic votes were twisted until no Democrat could, in good conscience, say "aye." Perhaps the best example of this strategy was the Department of Homeland Security, a Democratic idea that the White House first opposed, and then inserted a union-busting provision into, so Democrats had to fight against a broadly popular idea that they, at base, supported. That bill could have passed with overwhelming support. It was a conscious decision to make it a partisan issue so it could be used as a cudgel in the 2002 elections.

That, however, was a majoritarian strategy. The 2006 elections marked the end of its usefulness. Now that Democrats held the committee chairmanships and wrote the legislation, the White House couldn't freeze them out of the process and create bills they'd oppose. But there were still multiple paths open to the increasingly unpopular president. One was to begin working, in a serious and bipartisan way, with the Democrats. This is what Ronald Reagan often did with his Democratic Congress, and it led to some genuinely decent advances in public policy, including the 1986 tax reform, which hugely expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and raised rates on corporations, and the bipartisan Greenspan Commission, which gave Social Security a $165 billion bailout and established the trust fund financing system that's sustained the program ever since.

After the Democrats took Congress, George W. Bush could have done the same. Indeed, he could have pushed further, as he was already in his second term, and didn't need to worry about reelection. He could have resolved to spend his final years pushing policy forward, and created genuinely bipartisan commissions to resolve Medicare's financing crisis, to clean the tax code and reform the Alternative Minimum Tax, and to end the war in Iraq. Instead, he did precisely the opposite.

To understand how, it's necessary to appreciate George Bush's almost unique circumstances. There are generally a couple democratic checks on a president's power: his desire to retain political capital with Congress in order to pass legislation; his need to retain popularity in order more effectively advocate for his agenda; and his wish to improve the fortunes of his party and ensure the ascension of his vice-president.

Bush is constrained by none of those. He has largely given up on passing legislation through Congress, preferring instead to focus on those portions of his agenda that require relatively little in the way of congressional involvement -- notably the continuation of the Iraq War, where Democrats would effectively need a veto-proof majority to stop him.

When he does go through Congress, he's been attaching "signing statements" to direct courts to interpret the legislation in a way contrary to the text and favorable to the president. This has so enraged some senators that Republican Arlen Spector is now sponsoring legislation to stop it.

Bush has embraced this descent into unpopularity, eschewing even a hint of compliance with public preferences for withdrawal, or even drawdown, in Iraq. His vice-president isn't running to succeed him, and as the immigration debacle proved, he's grown uninterested in the future of the Republican Party.

All of which means he is completely free. Save for impeachment, he is utterly liberated from the natural democratic checks on executive behavior. There is nothing that congressional Democrats or the electorate can take from him that he has not already taken from himself. And, perversely, that gives him extraordinary freedom of movement. Not on all issues -- he will never fix Medicare or solve the immigration crisis. But on Iraq, he is virtually untouchable. And in the arrogation of power to the executive -- a longtime Bush and Cheney obsession, which ranges from secret wiretapping without FISA approval to the commutation of Libby's sentence -- there is nothing standing before their consolidation of authority.

Bush, as has so often been remarked, is a uniter, not a divider. He has united the country against him. But he has found power in division, in lonesomeness, in unpopularity. He realized that a narrow loss in the 2000 election meant he didn't need to govern so as to retain a robust majority. He understood that legislation didn't need as many votes as possible, it merely required as many votes as necessary. And he figured out that a lame duck president who polls in the 20s need never make another compromise -- and so need never kowtow to a disagreeable electorate.

This will be his legacy, as it was, in the end, his genius. While Nixon famously pursued the Southern strategy because he realized that if he broke the country into pieces, his piece would be bigger, Bush broke the country into pieces, and embraced the smaller half, and then a mere quarter. He made the executive branch the minority party, and in doing, freed himself from many of the constraints of democracy. Truly, he has achieved a Machiavellian enlightenment, a state of perfect zen-like detachment from democracy.

Honestly, I would have preferred if he'd simply been raptured up to heaven.