For some years, it's been difficult for conservatives to figure out when to stand with President Bush and when to draw distinctions. On judicial appointments, executive privilege, the War on Terror, and most social and 'values' issues, conservatives have seen Bush as an ally. On Iraq, entitlement programs, spending (until recently, at least) and immigration, they've at least sought to put some 'daylight' between themselves and the President.
But it's starting to look as if the immigration fight has become the straw that broke the camel's back. Conservatives oppose the White House on the substance and deeply resent the charges of nativism and ignorance coming from Bush's team. Now Mitt Romney has apparently decided that it's time to begin the process of disowning the President:
"We're going to change the course of America," Romney told about 800 donors gathered for a pep rally at the Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park.
"It's on a course right now that's just not quite right. We've got a lot of problems around the world that need our leadership as a nation.
"We're going to have to get ourselves back on track again so that we can remain the powerful nation we've always been -- powerful not just by our strength and our economic vitality, but powerful because of our goodness and the greatness of the American spirit. And that's what the campaign is about."
Romney, like the other top GOP contenders, has so far avoided direct criticism of the increasingly unpopular President Bush, choosing instead to focus specifically on issues like immigration or the conduct of the war.
But his language in Boston -- at a time when polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Americans feel as he does about the nation being on the wrong course -- signaled that he will take steps to move away from the president if necessary.
Up until now, prominent conservatives have mostly defended the President -- pointing out his strengths and downplaying his faults. But if Romney feels comfortable in affirmatively laying some blame at Bush's doorstep -- then it's only because he thinks primary voters are receptive to the message, and won't develop 'buyer's remorse' between now and the primaries. Will other GOP leaders and candidates follow suit?
There's not about to be a big press conference where a slew of GOP Senators wash their hands of President Bush, but it seems that this may be the tipping point. Republicans seem to have decided that Bush is unpopular and politically weak; he's not 'looking out' for their best political interests; and opposing him won't be punished by the base. There are probably more than a few who would call his fixation on immigration 'Ahabesque,' and wonder why they should take even one more political hit for the guy. Better to look to next year.
Can Bush reverse this? I'm not sure. He'll get conservative backing in vetoing a few spending bills, but can Congressional Republicans even be sure that he'll stick to fiscal discipline if Democrats offer a deal on defense spending? And if 'comprehensive immigration reform' somehow passes the Senate, then a vicious fight in the House is likely. It'll leave lots more time to build resentment on both sides, instead of turning to other issues.
The question could be moot of course. If Bush plans to 'play out the string' as a lame duck President, he doesn't need much help from Congressional Republicans. If he still hopes to accomplish anything, however -- most notably on Iraq -- he may find that he's lost all his formerly loyal troops in Congress. Come September, they could be busy echoing the statements of Romney, Giuliani, or Thompson.