I'm fascinated by Jonah Goldberg's move to try sever conservatism's fate from that of President Bush by arguing that the President is not a conservative:
[T]here is one area where we can make somewhat useful comparisons between Nixon and Bush: their status as liberal Republicans...
Bush is certainly to the right of Nixon on many issues. But at the philosophical level, he shares the Nixonians' supreme confidence in the power of the state. Bush rejects limited government and many of the philosophical assumptions that underlie that position. He favors instead strong government. He believes, as he said in 2003, that when "somebody hurts, government has got to move." His compassionate conservatism shares with Nixon's moderate Republicanism a core faith that not only can the government love you, but it should spend money to prove its love. Beyond that, there seems to be no core set of principles that define Bush's approach, and therefore, much like Nixon, no clearly communicable message that explains why he does things other than political calculation and expediency.
The idea, of course, is to not let Bush's failure damage conservatism as a political movement. As Glenn Greenwald points out, however, conservatives happily claimed Bush as one of their own when he was popular even though he displayed some big government tendencies. But now that he's unpopular, it's likely we'll see more "Bush is not a conservative" rhetoric.
This rhetorical tactic is fascinating because it inverts what Democrats did after the debacle of the 1980/1984/1988 elections. Democrats started denying they were liberals, whereas conservatives today are denying that Republicans are conservatives.
It also conveniently reverses the way conservatives interpreted President Clinton's ideology. Every move toward the center that Clinton made was interpreted as a sign of political expediency that just masked his underlying liberalism. By contrast, President Bush's moves toward the center (education, prescription drugs, immigration, refusing to propose major budget cuts) are interpreted as revealing his true liberal tendencies.
The other absurd aspect of this is Goldberg's suggestion that Bush is unpopular because he's too liberal:
Perhaps this unnoticed fact [Bush's alleged liberalism on domestic issues] explains part of Bush's falling poll numbers more than most observers are willing to admit. The modern conservative movement, from Goldwater to Reagan, was formed as a backlash against Nixonism. Today, Reaganite conservatives make up a majority of the Republican party. If Bush held the Reaganite line on liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad, he'd be in a lot better shape. After all, if Bush's own base supported him at their natural level, his job-approval numbers wouldn't be stellar, but they wouldn't have his enemies cackling, either.
USA Today/Gallup happened to ask a poll question about precisely this issue, and the results indicate exactly the opposite. 45% of Americans think Bush is too conservative, 28% think he's just about right, and only 19% think he's too liberal. Part of the most recent decline in Bush's poll numbers is certainly due to growing conservative discontent, but that's only because there's no one else left to alienate -- liberals and moderates already disapprove of Bush in massive numbers (according to USA Today/Gallup, 52% of conservatives approve of Bush, compared with 28% of moderates and 7% of liberals). If the President moved meaningfully toward the center, he'd almost surely gain in popularity. Conversely, moving further to the right would likely hurt his overall political standing. It's hard to imagine that more hard-edged conservatism would leave Bush in "a lot better shape," as Goldberg claims.