As the President took off for Asia in November to deliver more sermons on the virtues of democracy, small-d democratic dissent was at last finding its voice back home. For years George W. Bush’s White House and party enforcers like the now-indicted Tom DeLay have ruled over Republicans with an iron fist. The troops in Congress slavishly accepted Bush’s every whim, even when conservatives gagged on ideological contradictions like his fabulous budget deficits. Moderates were meek, silenced by the threat of punishment if they dared stray.

Hosannas! The zeitgeist appears to be changing. The lockstep politics engineered by Karl Rove has visibly weakened. Suddenly the GOP majority begins to resemble the Democrats of old, when they held power and were always fighting among themselves. In the House the GOP rank and file choked on their leadership’s preposterous proposal for $54 billion in budget cuts, which whacked Medicaid, student loans and other down-home assistance while again cutting taxes for the rich. In the Senate GOP moderates also defected, joining Democrats to block Bush’s tax cuts.

Undoing the savage inequalities of the Bush era will require a titanic fight, but the new-found courage of GOP moderates hints that significant changes are possible before Bush leaves town. This good news has one obvious source: the plummeting share price of the President’s stock. After their recent election losses and with Bush’s poll ratings hitting new lows, Republican politicians are wondering whether their incumbencies can withstand sustained Democratic assault in 2006. Why take chances by identifying with this deeply wounded leader?

Bush is bleeding for many reasons, but none more damaging than the ill-conceived and illegal war on Iraq. Thanks to vigilant Democrats, the Senate is at last pursuing an investigation into the manipulation of prewar intelligence. And it voted 98 to 0 to put strict limits on prisoner interrogations and require detailed White House reports on progress in restoring Iraqi sovereignty so US troops can be withdrawn (regrettably, in that same bill Democrats supported the unconscionable Graham compromise, which essentially guts habeas corpus protections for Guantánamo inmates).

Bush still admits no mistakes, seeking instead the refuge of scoundrels–false patriotism. The President’s ploy will not succeed in silencing dissent, not when two-thirds of the country already doubt his honesty. These times have given the Democrats a golden opportunity. If they don’t seize it by offering concrete alternatives that inspire the public, Bush could regain his equilibrium and the moment will be lost. Never has America been in greater need of leadership, and never has the field been more open for progressive solutions.