The party pooper



As President Bush neared the end of his tumultuous tenure, I was asked to assess his record and legacy in my Sunday newspaper column. I chose to focus on his political legacy – specifically, the serious damage he has inflicted on his own party. Even Republicans and conservative scholars acknowledge this damage; to argue my point, I needed only to quote their words. Here’s a vastly expanded and updated version of the print column:

We already know that George W. Bush will walk away from his wreckage seven days hence, having bequeathed us record budget deficits, a tanking economy, a needless war costing half a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, a sullied global image, and so much more.

But one other facet of his legacy is widely overlooked: He wrecked his own Republican Party.

Don't take my word for it. Various Republicans rendered their verdicts on Bush long before the November election. For instance, Peggy Noonan, the commentator and former Reagan speechwriter, argued a year ago that “Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart.”

If that sounds too harsh, perhaps Tom Davis, a former House GOP leader, will strike you as more diplomatic. Referring to Bush last spring, Davis said: “He's just killed the Republican brand. . . . The Republican brand is in the trash can. . . . If we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf.”

Well, OK, that too sounds a tad hostile. But given the precipitous decline of the GOP since 2004, these sentiments are no surprise. Bush doesn't deserve all the blame; a scandal-marred Republican Congress, featuring Tom DeLay, sexual predator Mark Foley, and convicted felon Ted Stevens, played a crucial role in alienating the electorate. But clearly the buck stops with the guy who dubbed himself the Decider.

Thanks primarily to Bush's leadership, the Republicans have plummeted to minority status, dashing Karl Rove’s dream of crafting a permanent governing majority. They lost the '08 presidential race (at last count) by 9.5 million votes, the party's widest losing margin in 44 years. Since 2004, they have lost 54 House seats and 13 Senate seats - probably 14, since Democrat Al Franken will likely weather the last-ditch GOP court challenges to his apparent victory in Minnesota.

And the Senate situation threatens to get worse. It now appears that at least four current Republican senators will forego the opportunity to run for re-election in 2010; after all, it’s no fun to be stuck in the minority, with no foreseeable prospects for recovery. Worse yet for the GOP, three of those open seats will be located in states where Democrats are now strongly competitive: Ohio, Florida, and Missouri. This new Republican headache is yet another symptom of the ills inflicted on the party by its leader.

Basically, Bush damaged his party in two fundamental ways: He turned off a lot of conservatives within the party's base; and, more importantly, he turned off the moderate and independent voters who typically swing elections to one side or the other.

Small-government conservatives lost their enthusiasm for Bush because he wound up spending like a liberal Democrat. While partnering with the GOP-led Congress, Bush never vetoed a spending bill. Indeed, as early as 2005, some of the small-government conservatives were already seething; that year, former Reagan official Bruce Bartlett authored a book entitled Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and wrote that Bush’s governance “runs totally contrary to the restrains and limits to power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism.”

And, just last week, conservative activist and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said he and his brethren were “disgusted" with Bush's “betrayal of Reaganism.” He noted that 20 percent of all self-identified conservatives voted for Barack Obama, and he warned that "it will take some time - possibly as long as it took the GOP to throw off the millstone of Herbert Hoover - before the GOP can right itself."

But Bush's worst political legacy for the GOP is his alienation of swing voters. The exit polls tell the tale. In the 2004 election, Bush essentially split the independents with John Kerry; in 2008, John McCain (dogged by the Bush track record) lost independents by eight percentage points - and the election itself by seven. By a different measure, Bush lost self-identified moderate voters by nine points in 2004; four years later, McCain lost them by 21.

Why Bush lost the center is no mystery. The reasons include his mendacious salesmanship and poor execution of the Iraq war; the erosion of America's image abroad; his inept response to Katrina; the aforementioned budget deficits; his elevation of incompetent party hacks to crucial government posts; his opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research; his notorious attempt, in cahoots with the Republican Congress and the religious right, to keep Terri Schiavo alive in defiance of state court rulings and the wishes of her family.

Republicans are particularly cognizant of the political damage they have suffered thanks to Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. (At his final press conference yesterday, Bush said he was “disappointed” to learn that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs.) As former Bush speechwriter David Frum writes in his latest book, “Iraq is the great wreck and failure of this presidency, the great enduring shadow on our party…Under George Bush, Republicans have lost their historical advantage as the party of national security.”

Things have gotten so bad on that the candidates for the GOP national chairmanship apparently consider it advantageous to publicly rebuke Bush on Iraq. At a debate last week, current Republican chairman Mike Duncan (who’s seeking a new term) cited Bush’s failed “prosecution” of the war. Candidate Michael Steele faulted Bush’s “failure to communicate on the war,” and tossed in Katrina as well.

Beyond Iraq, Bush's damage to the party is reflected in the fact that fewer Americans embrace the GOP “brand.” According to 2004 exit polls, equal shares of voters in that election saw themselves as Democratic or Republican; in 2008, by contrast, Democratic voters had a seven-point edge. Meanwhile, a new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center puts the party-identification gap at 10 points - driven largely by the young voters who came of age watching Bush's serial failures.

A new analysis by the conservative Hoover Institution deftly frames the GOP quandary: “The decline of Republican strength occurs when strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans become independents, and independents lean more Democratic or [are] even becoming Democrats. . . . The problem for Republicans is that their base is slowly shrinking, and they cannot win without the support of moderates” - all of which suggests “an emerging party realignment” to the GOP's detriment, perhaps “a long dry run.”

The Hoover analysis barely touched on another Republican woe: the hemorrhaging of support among Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnicity in the electorate. Bush, however, is not to blame for that. From day one, he intended to champion path-to-citizenship immigration reform - not just because his stance would draw Hispanics to the GOP, but because he sincerely believed in it. He ultimately was foiled by the border-security activists and politicians on his right flank.

Long after Bush is gone, the party will be stuck trying to figure out how to attract Hispanics while somehow appeasing the conservatives who vociferously oppose immigration reform. Bush did try to address this dilemma at the press conference yesterday, noting that the GOP now seems saddled with an image of exclusion and intolerance:

“I am concerned that, in the wake of the (’08 Republican) defeat, the temptation will be to look inward… Take, for example, the immigration debate. That's obviously a highly contentious issue. And the problem with the outcome of the initial round of the debate was that some people said, ‘well, Republicans don't like immigrants.’ Now, that may be fair or unfair, but that's what - that's the image that came out. And, you know, if the image is that we don't like immigrants, then there's probably somebody else out there saying, ‘well, if they don't like the immigrants, they probably don't like me, as well.’ And so my point…is that our party has got to be compassionate and broad-minded.”

But, overall, Bush deserves the brunt of the party's ire. His arrogance, coupled with his certitudes, did the most to trash the brand. I doubt that Republicans are angry to the point of throwing shoes, but many probably were not amused at Bush's huffy answer to a question during an ABC News interview that was part of his legacy tour. When it was pointed out that the Saddam Hussein had not conspired with al-Qaeda, and that al-Qaeda had not been a presence in Iraq until we invaded, Bush fired back: “So what?” That’s the ‘tude we all know.

And when he was reminded, during the press conference yesterday, of his notorious foot-dragging on Katrina (the crisis that permanently wrecked his poll standing), he replied in familiar fashion: by denying factual reality. Here was Bush yesterday: “You know, people said that the federal response was slow. Don’t tell me the federal response was slow.” Yet a government report in 2006 concluded that a “blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision-making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina’s horror,” and stated that “earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response.” Care to guess who authored that report? The House Republicans wrote that report…shortly before the voters booted them out of power.

All told, Bush is staying in character to the bitter end. And, in political terms, his party is stuck with clearing the debris and struggling to map a road to recovery.