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The McCain (et al.) Mutiny

A President who prizes loyalty suddenly finds the knives are out.

ATTEMPTS TO GIVE George Bush's administration a nickname had been circling around this one: "The Tinkerbell Presidency." Like Ronald Reagan's "Teflon," recognizing his gift for sidling past criticism, or Bill Clinton's "Comeback Kid," honoring his talent for turning around any scandal, the epithet captures Bush's quality of surrounding himself with an amen chorus that claps every doomed policy back to life. But the name won't catch on. The Bush drama has moved into the final act, and Tink's dust isn't working.

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This time the fairy will die.

Historians may want to mark the last attempt at arousing audience participation, and here it is: Just after the fall of Harriet Miers, the soprano section at the National Review Online sent out this hallelujah: "You know what the relief is this morning? A return to the feeling that this president gets the big things right. There was a detour, but I'm confident we're going to have good news shortly...."

Really? Bush may yet snag an occasional friendly headline ("Nominee Confirmed"), but his presidency is effectively over. A man who built his entire administration upon demanding unctuous loyalty from his allies now finds himself wounded by their shabby betrayal. You'd have to go back to one of Spain's humpbacked Hapsburgs to find court perfidy of the variety that is currently depleting the president's power.

Bush's allies in Congress began to turn away right after the election of 2004. John McCain repeatedly mocks Condi Rice or any other official who dares to come before him with honey-tongued news from Iraq. Chuck Hagel says of Iraq: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing, it's now in the zone of dangerous." A senator as conservative as Jim DeMint of South Carolina has broken with Bush on the budget, and it was Republicans who knifed Bush's grand Social Security reform.

Worse, roughing up the president has practically become the new Republican way to announce a presidential campaign for 2008. Only a few months ago, Bill Frist was happy to violate his Hippocratic oath by giving the media a bogus diagnosis of Terry Schiavo to help Bush (and himself) court the pro-life fringe. Now Frist has come out in favor of stem-cell research and let it be known he told the White House to pull the plug on Harriet Miers. This is not merely about fleeing a sinking ship. Bush long ago showed that nothing should stand in the way of getting into power; so Frist, along with co-betrayers George Allen and Sam Brownback, are practicing what they have learned at the feet of the master. Now, it's Bush and his legacy that are in the way.

Outside the corridors of Congress are other kinds of betrayal, insidious ones that can't be easily restrained by threats or mau-mauing. Take television. Hurricane Katrina revealed a Homeland Security operation that looked like the Keystone Cops, and television producers saw, for the first time, mass outrage at the Bush cronies. Here's the bad news for Bush: There's only one thing the broadcast media will pursue more obediently than the approval of an intimidating government: audience share. Now that his approval numbers are in a tailspin, TV bookers are dusting off that long neglected Rolodex of administration critics.

Once, Bush's Iraq gamble had backing from moderate pundits like Peter Beinart, Andrew Sullivan, and George Packer. But each has slunk away cursing Bush's name with angry magazine covers, withering blogs, or brutal books. For conservative pundits, the turning point came with the Miers nomination. John Fund whacked it as "a political blunder of the first order." George Will and his thesaurus called her nomination the "perfect perversity." Robert Bork called it a "disaster on every level." Embodying what David Brooks, pop neologist, has already coined the "Post-Bush Conservative," they no longer see Bush as a prince to be obeyed but as political carrion upon which to feast.

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