The side effects of Bush fatigue.
After five years of tax cuts, pork barrel, and earmarks, we don't really know whether Bush caved to congressional Republicans' special-interest agenda or caved to his. Until now, Bush and Congress haven't even had any near-misses with the veto pen. For all the current carping about executive overreach, Bush may be guilty of executive atrophy instead.
Indeed, that could explain Bush's year-long, all-bums-on-deck push to drive down his own popularity. In a polarized electorate, it's nearly impossible to sink to 34 percent approval unless you're doing it on purpose. Harrison and Taylor were so dedicated to a weak presidency that they offed themselves, one by catching a cold, the other by stuffing himself with cherries. Thanks to modern medicine, a 34 percent approval rating is the closest a man in good shape can come to dying in office. What better way to honor the Whig principle of limiting executive power than to be an abject failure as president?
Then again, Bush himself may be the one desperate to break free. For five years, like a good Whig, he has gone along with DeLay's agenda—no questions asked, no bills vetoed. Now, after the Abramoff scandal, he sees that the Republican Congress is headed upriver, destined to ice his legacy along with it. From that vantage point, Bush's support for the Dubai ports deal isn't a colossal political blunder; it's a refugee's desperate cry for help.
Whig or no Whig, Bush will continue to be a washout unless he steps up to cast that first veto. For inspiration, he might look to another Whig predecessor, John Tyler, whose nickname was "His Accidency." After Harrison died and Tyler took his place, leader Henry Clay expected him to rubber stamp the Whig agenda. But President Tyler vetoed ten bills, including Clay's proposal to overhaul the banking system. Tyler's Cabinet quit, and Whigs threw him out of the party. He left office after three years, bought a plantation, and named it "Sherwood Forest" because he considered himself a political outlaw.
[They're still after him. Apparently, living politicians, their staffs, and their opponents aren't the only ones dressing up their Wikipedia bios. Tyler has been dead for almost 150 years, but on Thursday morning, his Wikipedia bio included this surprising tidbit: "yasmine was hur,,,check me out on myspace...if u *****'z want it...come an get it."]
George H.W. Bush and his son have spent their presidencies trying to disprove Newsweek's 1987 cover, "Fighting the Wimp Factor." Yet if the current president can't bring himself to veto a single bill from this Republican Congress, we'll know he's not just a wimp or a Know-Nothing. Move over, Millard Fillmore: The Whig Factor is back. 11:46 A.M. (link)
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.