Snooze alarm.

Notes from the political sidelines.
March 16 2006 9:07 AM

Snooze Alarm

The side effects of Bush fatigue.

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(Continued from Page 1)

The sleeping pill Ambien seems to unlock a primitive desire to eat in some patients, according to emerging medical case studies that describe how the drug's users sometimes sleepwalk into their kitchens, claw through their refrigerators like animals and consume calories ranging into the thousands.

A California woman woke up "to find candy bar wrappers next to her bed and Popsicle sticks on the floor near the refrigerator." A Minnesota woman in a full body cast sleepwalked to her kitchen, where her son found her sleep-frying bacon and eggs. Researchers have linked this sleep-eating with amnesia: Patients gain weight, but have no recollection of their late-night binges.

Let's see—a pattern of bloating and chronic overindulgence by people who say they can't remember why it happened. Come to think of it, that's the way Bush has Republicans talking about spending.

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Listen to one Ambien sufferer quoted in the Times: "I got a package of hamburger buns and I just tore it open like a grizzly bear and just stood there and ate the whole package. [My husband] said a couple things to me and then he realized I was asleep." The woman was from Dickson, Tenn.,—but she could just as well have been a Republican presidential candidate in Memphis. ... 9:02 A.M. (link)

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Sequels:As a politician's politician, George W. Bush must have smiled to hear what Republicans who dream of succeeding him had to say in Memphis this weekend. Like any second-term president, he wants the wannabes to run for his third term. Yet Bush understands better than anyone how hard winning a third term can be. In 1988, when the country had tired of Ronald Reagan, he helped his father hold on by promising a kinder, gentler version. In 2000, when the country had given up on Gingrich Republicans in favor of Clinton centrism, Bush repeated the trick by inventing compassionate conservatism. Bush ran away from congressional Republicans and tried to convince voters that he'd give them a third term of the Clinton economy instead.

Now Republicans find themselves in an even deeper hole than in 1988 or 2000. Bush's approval rating in the Gallup Poll has sunk to a record low of 36 percent. His disapproval rating is back up to its high of 60 percent (third on the all-time list, with three years to keep trying). With numbers like that, the political junkie in Bush would tell his would-be successors to do just what they're doing: run away.

Much of the 2008 field, however, has nowhere to run. Those successful sequels in 1988 and 2000 promised to expand conservatism's appeal by rounding off its hard edges. In 2008, that's not really an option. No one—except, ironically, Newt Gingrich—is likely to run as the heir to compassionate conservatism. It's easy to contemplate a kinder, gentler Cheney—a Republican who promises to shoot blanks. But it's almost impossible to imagine what a kinder, gentler Bush might be. No wars? Less spying? An even more expensive drug benefit? And if Republicans can't run as kinder and gentler, the alternative is worse: meaner and rougher. Maybe Tom DeLay isn't finished after all.

As Adam Nagourney reports in the New York Times, Republican contenders so far have found one word to differentiate themselves from Bush: cheaper. All weekend, wannabes invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, who was such a true believer in fiscal conservatism that the national debt only tripled on his watch, to nearly $3 trillion. Bush has presided over the disappearance of a $5.6 trillion projected surplus, and by the time he's through will have added another $4 trillion to the debt.

Of course, Republicans conveniently forget that not only did the country tire of Reagan's budget busting, but they tired of the paradoxical antigovernment tone that went with it. That's what led the elder Bush to promise "a kinder, gentler nation" in the first place.

A genuine fiscal conservative like John McCain—who aspires to be Reagan without the tax cuts—will have no trouble distinguishing himself from Bush. But Nagourney points out that other prospective candidates in Memphis offered little idea what to cut, and that senators who promise to cut spending as president might have an obligation to actually vote for doing so in Congress. The headline in today's Washington Post suggests how well that's going: "Republicans on Hill Resist Party Leaders' Spending Cuts."

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