Apparently, there are people around Bush who see things this way. A few weeks ago, Mike Allen quoted one of them in the Washington Post. "The feeling is that the country deserves governance and if you don't assert the sovereignty and legitimacy of your administration from the outset, you undermine your ability to achieve your goals later," the adviser said. Unfortunately, the Bushies have gotten into trouble with this kind of attitudinizing before. In the closing days of the campaign, Karl Rove went around telling everybody that Bush was going to sweep into office. The idea was that people would vote for the perceived winner. The reality was that the attempt to manipulate voter psychology nearly resulted in Bush serving out his term as governor of Texas. The problem with this tactic is that perceptions aren't reality, even in Washington.
In fact, these various theories aren't mutually exclusive. Each supplies part of the explanation for Bush's recent behavior. And there's a fifth possibility, too, which seems to me the most persuasive. Bush doesn't think he's being all that conservative. He doesn't see himself jerking right for the same reason Bill Clinton didn't think he was lurching left at the beginning of his first term. The presidency creates a kind of political echo chamber, especially when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches. In 1993, Clinton didn't realize that what were consensus views within his party would come across as extreme positions to the populace as a whole. When he wanted to reclaim the center after the 1994 election, Clinton had to bring in Dick Morris and undermine his own staff. In the same way, Bush risks finding the heart of the GOP while misjudging the center of the larger debate. And if he wants to avoid this fate? He'll need to escape the conservative hothouse that is now his home.