President Bush is the most conservative president in modern times. He consciously modeled himself as the opposite of his father. A conservative revolt contributed to defeat of the elder Bush, who was fiercely attacked as a betrayer. In a classic case of reaction formation, George W Bush was determined never to make an enemy on the right.
The younger Bush brought the neoconservatives - banished by Reagan and Bush Sr - back into government, and followed their scenario for remaking the Middle East through an invasion of Iraq, using 9/11 as the pretext. He followed the rightwing script on supply-side economics, enacting an enormous tax cut for the wealthy that fostered a deficit that dwarfed Reagan's, the problem his father had tried to resolve through a tax increase, which earned the right's hostility. And Bush has followed the religious right's line on stem-cell research, abortion and creationism.
For his vision of the world as black and white, his disdain for internationalism, his tainting of the opposition as unpatriotic, his tax breaks for the upper bracket and his religious zealotry, conservatives celebrated him. For his second term, Bush took his narrow victory as a mandate to govern from the hard right. At last he would begin the privatization of social security, rolling back the New Deal. But he stumbled upon a dirty little secret of conservatism: the public supports conservative presidents so long as they leave alone the liberal programs that benefit them.
Baffled by the opposition, he plowed ahead, even as the Iraq war eroded his support. Then Hurricane Katrina blew the top off his administration's culture of cronyism. Meanwhile, the special prosecutor investigating the disclosure of a covert CIA operative's identity by senior administration officials has moved steadily towards his targets.
Bush's nomination of his White House legal counsel and former personal lawyer Harriet Miers for the supreme court was the hair trigger for a conservative revolt. Miers is the least qualified nominee since Clarence Thomas. She appears on the White House website discussing how Bush plays "horseshoes" with his dog: "The president throws the horseshoes to Barney, and Barney runs after them." In a meeting with the powerful chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, Arlen Specter, who had said Miers needed "a crash course" in the law, she explained that she supported decisions that were the basis for Roe v Wade, legalizing abortion. Then Miers took back her statement, reinforcing an image of incompetence and ignorance.
Conservatives see her nomination as a rebuke to the cadres of ideologues groomed for Republican upward mobility; rightwing pundits have outdone each other in denouncing her as a crony. Bush's former speechwriter David Frum has launched a petition drive to force Bush to withdraw her. "She once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met," he sneered. Yet Miers was nominated in place of professional ideologues because Bush has fallen from grace for his adherence to conservative policies; Bush calculated that the Senate would approve her but not a rightwing judge with a well-delineated record. Had his conservative policies succeeded, he might have named a purebred ideologue.
Having faithfully implemented conservative ideas, Bush is blamed by disloyal ideologues to deflect attention from the failure of their ideas. Like Trotskyists for whom communism remained an unfulfilled ideal, conservatives claim that conservatism has not been tried and Bush is an "impostor". In attempting to avoid the nemesis of his father, Bush is reliving it.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is the author of The Clinton Wars.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005