On Easter Sunday, the 23rd airing of Charlton Heston's 47-year-old film "The Ten Commandments" swept the ratings. But this week, the Republican's 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican," didn't fare quite so well.
What happened? Saddam was toppled, President Bush has a popularity rating of 73 percent and two-thirds of American can't even name a Democrat running for president. Republicans hold both houses of Congress (not to mention the Supreme Court), so everything should be coming up roses, right?
Well, not quite. The Club for Growth, a conservative group devoted to knocking off moderate Republicans they can't keep in line, ran an ad comparing Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio to the French for their refusal to vote for the president's $726 billion tax cut. Snowe and Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island criticized Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum for gay bashing; Voinovich stiffed President Bush when he went to Ohio to push for his big tax cut and the president dissed Voinovich for advocating "little bitty tax relief." Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay are on Bill Frist's case for not delivering conservative programs, and the White House got into a snit when Frist went off to Asia and without telling them about Snowe and Voinovich.
And then there's the return of Newt. In his most Newt-like tones, the former Speaker dumped all over the State Department, called Colin Powell's diplomacy a disaster and his upcoming trip to Syria ludicrous. Gingrich – an ally of Donald Rumsfeld and member of the Defense Policy Board along with Powell nemesis, Richard Perle – let it all hang out in the Washington Post and later at the American Enterprise Institute in a speech conservative foreign policy analyst Frank Gaffney called "Churchillian."
The next day Powell and Rummy tried to make nice over lunch at the State Department, but their allies were all over the place stirring the pot. Al Hunt in the Wall Street Journal called the Powell-Rumsfeld rivalry "perhaps the most intense and high-stakes intra-administration feud since World War II."
One Republican consultant tried to explain all this discord by attributing it to the spoils of war. "Maybe they all suddenly feel emboldened. During the war over everyone's been cooped up and stressed out and now they are feeling their oats." There appears to be no accountability. The fissures inside the party on taxes vs. deficits and on social issues are coming to light. That puts the focus back on the question of leadership and who is really running the show.
When it comes to politics it's Karl Rove, of course. But on foreign policy and on the Hill the power centers are diffuse. During the war, not only did President Bush suffer a setback on taxes, but his treasured ANWAR oil drilling proposal went down, his judicial nominees and faith-based programs stalled, and Medicare reform remains a tangled mess.
Another Republican suggested that the Rove-Bush technique of "flooding the system" with big programs is bound to create tension, spurring public officials to fight for their piece of the action. One GOP consultant said they may be taking the president's popularity and Republican electoral dominance for granted and assuming that this infighting won't cost them anything.
The good news for the GOP is that the fight over the tax cut is about how big it should be, not whether cutting taxes at all is good policy. Rove said last year at AEI that he was determined to make sure the Republican base knew that George W. Bush was committed to cutting taxes and that the perception of him wanting lower taxes might even be more important than actually getting them.
The GOP base is happy. Ninety percent of them support the president – and have for two years. White House pollster Matthew Dowd sent a memo out to Republicans this week warning them that the high poll ratings would come down and that at some point the president might even trail a Democratic opponent in the polls. He urged them not to panic if this happened and cited lots of historical precedents to bolster the point that if the president's re-elect rating was at 45 percent or above, he'd win.
The White House is betting that despite the squabbles the party will come together when it matters, and that George W. Bush will sail to victory in 2004. And they may be hoping that when the polls do start to come down, some Republicans will get a little worried and start obeying that 11th commandment once again.
By Dotty Lynch