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Why don’t intelligent people give up on politics? Maybe for the same reason drunks don’t give up on drinking.

Power is seductive. In a democracy, everyone thinks he can have a share of it. The conservative movement got rolling a generation ago when people like me saw our chance to rule through the Republican Party, with leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who would know what to do with government power — namely, limit it to its proper functions. If “our guys” won, there would be less government. Sounded reasonable.

And our guys won. Our dreams came true. Sort of. But the results we’d hoped for didn’t follow. Government not only remained what it had always been, but kept growing. As one wise and witty conservative put it, “Why do our guys go bad when they get into power? Because when they get into power, they’re no longer our guys.”

Some thought our guys had betrayed us, but they’d done only what men in power do. As we should have known. But we were dreaming the seductive dream democracy always inspires: that if the right men, “our” men, men who share our principles, get into power, power will be changed, not the men wielding it.

Liberals have the same experience as conservatives, starting in dreams and ending in disillusionment and the sense of betrayal. But power doesn’t really betray. It just does what comes naturally to it: taxing and making war, suitably disguised as public benefits.

Still, we can’t give it up. The drunk doesn’t really think his next drink will do him any real good; but he knows it will make him feel better briefly, so he goes on drinking, and destroying himself, unless and until he resolves to stop. This is apparently what George W. Bush did before he became president. He conquered his addiction to liquor, but not his illusions about power, which seem just as addictive.

If democracy seemed to work for him, Bush figures it must work for everyone, starting with Iraq. So he is determined not to withdraw from Iraq until it is a successful democracy, and he interprets everything as evidence of success. You wonder what, if anything, such dogged optimism would ever recognize as failure.

No empirical test can change Bush’s mind, not even the tests he himself has proposed. You or I may think the Iraq war is unwinnable, but he thinks it’s unlosable. Yet he faces the frustrating fact that he can’t convince most Americans that the war is being won, so it’s quite in character for him to make a surprise visit to Iraq to celebrate the death of a single insurgent, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as proof of success.

What kind of proof is that? The resistance doesn’t depend on Zarqawi. In fact he may have been a liability to al-Qaeda, sowing sectarian hatred among Muslims instead of keeping his eye on the ball of anti-American resistance.

But Bush has taken his eye off the ball too. Four years ago he was predicting a happy picture of what would happen by now, more nearly a cakewalk than a quagmire, the toppling of Saddam Hussein leading to the rapid spread of democracy in Iraq, throughout the Arab world, then around the world. A “global democratic revolution,” in his words. Nothing of the kind is happening, and nobody in his right mind thinks it will.

Today Bush is reduced to claiming the death of one man as an emblem of victory. Even at that, he has changed his tune from the days of “mission accomplished” and “bring it on.” His moral triumphalism remains, but his military confidence is clearly shaken.

Few conservatives now think of Bush as “our” man, and many of them have given up on the Republican Party. Nobody ever thought Bush was perfect, but who predicted his presidency would prove to be such a bitter experience? With more than two years to go, the worst may be yet to come. Long-latent disasters, not all of them Bush’s doing, may finally be coming to a head.

But that’s the real point. Democratic politics is approaching its real terminus, catastrophe, and whether it happens to arrive while Bush is still in the White House is incidental. All of us who ever believed in government have done our part to “bring it on.”

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