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SCOT LEHIGH

A heap of trouble for George Bush

WHEN TROUBLE arrives, it comes in droves. And from an unpopular war to top White House aides under investigation to yesterday's withdrawn Supreme Court nominee to the conservative revolt that precipitated that surrender, droves of troubles are now camped out on George W. Bush's doorstep.

Although Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both rebounded from worse polling numbers, this president has sunk to the sort of depths in public esteem that resulted in crippling diminutions for other modern presidents.

The chief cause of the president's slide, of course, is the Iraq war. With neither weapons of mass destruction nor collaborative Iraq-Al Qaeda connections found, Bush has been left to offer rationales that reinvent reality, such as his insinuation that Iraq was complicit in Sept. 11 or his assertion that we are fighting terrorists there so we won't have to face them here.

Now, with US military losses creeping above 2,000 in Iraq, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's probe into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame has opened a window onto White House doings. Regardless of whether the conduct in question proves criminal, the investigation has revealed an administration seemingly more concerned with undercutting critics like her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, than it had been with making sure its own claims about WMDs in Iraq were accurate.

Within Bush's own base on the right, it was the nomination of Harriet Miers, a pleasant but unremarkable loyalist with no judicial background, that sparked open rebellion. Not only were right-wing talk radio hosts up in octaves, but conservative pillars such as William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and even former Bush speechwriter David Frum had all come out against her.

Yesterday, that crescendo of conservative criticism culminated in Miers's withdrawal, a capitulation by a weakened White House that only foretokens further demands from the starboard side.

In Congress, meanwhile, key figures in the president's party are battling ethical clouds, while Republicans who came to power as putative reformers now greedily practice pork-barrel politics.

Against the backdrop of those troubles, any number of national problems await more-realistic approaches. Having blundered in disbanding the entirety of the Iraq Army, and then having compounded that error by failing to focus immediately on training battle-ready Iraqi troops, the administration seems determined to stay an indefinite course, though voices from former Nixon defense secretary Melvin Laird on the right to US Senator John Kerry on the left are now calling for a draw-down of US troops in the near future. In an interview with The New Yorker, meanwhile, Brent Scowcroft, a principal architect of foreign policy under George H.W. Bush, has aired his dismay at this administration's foreign policy.

Moving to the domestic front, there is no serious plan to bring the nation's books back to some reasonable semblance of balance. As for healthcare? Well, as policy analyst Matt Miller has written in ''The Two Percent Solution," back in 1992 George H.W. Bush offered a plan that would have covered 30 million of 35 million uninsured. George W.'s proposal would cover only 6 million of the 42 million uninsured.

The current situation has highlighted how confused and contradictory contemporary conservatism has become. Earlier this month, when I wrote about Republican borrow-and-spend fiscal policies, any number of conservatives responded this way: Please don't call this president's approach conservative. To which one can only reply that the same basic policy has flown under the flag of conservatism since 1981.

Assaying the right-of-center crackup, David Brooks, The New York Times's thoughtful conservative columnist, has praised Bush for modernizing conservatism and making the GOP the party of the middle class. Certainly it has been remarkable, say, to see an African-American woman representing the United States as secretary of state on the world stage, the more so since Condoleezza Rice follows Colin Powell in the job. (If only Powell had enjoyed the influence with the president his post should have commanded.)

But in the main, Bush's conservatism is an exercise in ideological incoherence or contradiction.

Fiscally, for example, Bush has been able to escape the budgetary consequence of his tax cuts -- and thereby style himself a compassionate conservative -- only by relying on massive borrowing.

Now his policies have fallen from favor with the American people. Absent a major course correction, it's hard to see how this president can put the pieces back together again.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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