The Washington Times

President Bush has been through a bad patch. This fact has been evident in his declining poll numbers, the disaffection of his conservative base, the administration’s defensiveness about weapons of mass destruction and a manifest hesitancy that Mr. Bush seemed to have banished from his major public appearances post-September 11.

To be sure, this is not precisely the president’s moment, with the focus on Democrats’ selection of a nominee and therefore with the volume of the Democrats’ attacks on him turned up to 11. But behind the scenes, Mr. Bush should have accomplished by now something that seems to have eluded him: the consolidation of his base vote in the Republican Party.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Mr. Bush has done himself no permanent harm with his base, especially as the alternative Democrats are offering comes into sharper focus. Nevertheless, his campaign may now have to make some choices it could have avoided if Mr. Bush were already in a position of reaching out to voters secure in the knowledge that his base was behind him.

What has led Mr. Bush’s core conservative base to its current level of uneasiness? If I am reading the situation correctly, it has little to do with Iraq. On this subject, there seem to be few second thoughts. If anything, the frustration is with Mr. Bush’s defensiveness, which his supporters on Iraq regard as unnecessary. Paradoxically, a lot of them feel that they have better answers to provocative questions like those Tim Russert directed at the president three Sundays ago than Mr. Bush is able to muster on the spot.

For example, Mr. Bush is, to be sure, a wartime president: His base knows that and likes that best about him. But whether a wartime president should identify himself as a “war president” to Mr. Russert, as Mr. Bush did, is another matter. It’s a bit of meta-analysis that presumes a disengagement with the issue at hand, when Mr. Bush should be anything but disengaged. It’s not quite the equivalent of his father’s 1992 re-election pronouncement, “Message: I care,” but it bespeaks the same quality of self-absorption.

Again, this is more a matter of presentation than of policy substance, and Mr. Bush has managed to present his policies more ably before – and unless he has truly lost his way, will likely be able to do so again. But there matters do not end. In the month or so leading up to his state of the union speech, Mr. Bush managed to hit a trifecta of sorts, with policy enactments or proposals that have gone down very badly with his erstwhile most loyal supporters.

It started with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, continued with his proposal for immigration reform and came to a climax with his proposal for a moon colony and a manned mission to Mars. Medicare, immigration, moon/Mars: MIMM’s the word.

Among his base voters, two abiding convictions are that new entitlement programs are a singularly bad idea and that their costs inevitably escalate beyond the projections on which the programs are sold. It is true that Mr. Bush campaigned on a prescription-drug benefit in 2000, that no government health care program for the elderly – were we to start one from scratch toda – would omit drug coverage and that had a prescription plan not passed, Democrats would have blamed Mr. Bush. But is also true that for his conservative base, such program enhancements as drug coverage are meant to serve as leverage for significant policy reform. While supporters of the Medicare package claimed such reforms were included, in truth, they were far less than conservatives thought acceptable as a trade-off. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s 2005 budget already has the costs of the program running $200 billion more than anticipated only months ago.

Immigration divides conservative elites. A broadened appeal to Hispanic voters is fine, but did Mr. Bush really need to provoke a bitter argument among his core supporters the January before he faces re-election? Even his libertarian-leaning supporters within the GOP base are on the defensive on the issue, wondering, why now?

And then, to infinity and beyond. Mars is, in a certain context, an exhilarating challenge of an inspirational nature. [My problem with the moon colony is, what do you do when it demands its independence?] In another context, namely that of rapidly growing government spending, a huge budget deficit and a new national security agenda, it simply looks indiscriminate. Again, even supporters are obliged to say, “Yes, all that and Mars, too.” The ambition is beyond flagrant. If not “not Mars,” then “not” what?

There seems to be a certain political negligence here, perhaps born of White House insularity. It’s not necessarily fatal. Probably once Republicans read my friend John Podhoretz’s wonderful new book, “Bush Country,” they’ll come home. But neither have we lately been treated to a show of Mr. Bush’s invincibility. Step one: Mum’s the MIMM. Dance with the one that brought you.