It’s become fashionable to draw comparisons between George W. Bush’s sins and those of Richard Nixon, and for good reason. Both presidents are likely to be remembered as polarizing figures who left the country more divided than they found it. Both were accused of wartime deceptions; both also lost their way in disastrous second terms. And both men’s blunders, as Jonathan Rauch argued in this space last fall (“Unwinding Bush,” October), are the sort that could take decades to undo.
Bush may resemble his disgraced predecessor in another way as well. When Nixon left office, his attempt to create a conservative majority by drawing blue-collar voters into the GOP through appeals to patriotism and law-and-order seemed to have been killed off by Watergate. As it turned out, however, the working-class conservatism he summoned up has continued to dominate American politics, shaping the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and the second Bush himself.
Since the Republicans’ stinging defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, Bush’s distinctive ideological cocktail—social conservatism and an accommodation with big government at home, and a moralistic interventionism abroad—has similarly been derided by many as political poison. The various ingredients of “Bushism,” it’s been argued, have alienated fiscal hawks and foreign-policy realists, Catholics and libertarians—in short, everyone but the party’s evangelical base.
But someone must have forgotten to tell the GOP presidential field. If you consider how the nation’s most ambitious Republicans are positioning themselves for 2008, Bushism looks like it could have surprising staying power.
All of the prominent candidates, for instance, champion fiscal restraint, but none are likely to revive the small-government conservatism that Bush deliberately abandoned. John McCain may be a vehement foe of pork, but on issues ranging from campaign finance to education, he has shown little aversion to expanding the scope of federal power. Mitt Romney is best known for having delivered universal health care to Massachusetts, the bluest state in the union. And Sam Brownback has supported nearly every one of Bush’s big-government gambits, from the faith-based initiative to the costly prescription-drug entitlement. Newt Gingrich might seem a plausible advocate for small government—except that his recent manifesto, Winning the Future, includes more spending proposals than specific budget cuts.
The Bush-imitating pattern also holds in foreign policy. McCain talks tougher than Bush about Iran; Gingrich waxes eloquent about a third world war; Rudy Giuliani takes a maximalist view of the war on terrorism, casting it as a decades-long struggle that dates to Munich in 1972. Save for Brownback, all of the major contenders backed Bush’s call for a “surge” of troops into Iraq—and Brownback has been more aggressive and moralistic than Bush on humanitarian issues like Darfur.
And although Brownback is the only candidate in the field so far with Bush’s personal connection to the party’s religious conservatives, everyone—even McCain, even Giuliani—is actively courting them. This is partly because without evangelical Christians, there would essentially be no Republican Party anymore: Evangelicals provided more votes to the Republicans in last year’s midterms than African Americans and union members combined gave to the Democrats. Their influence within the party more or less requires that primary candidates endorse Bush-style moralism, not only on gay marriage and abortion but in foreign policy as well—which means continued support for Israel, a continued drift toward confrontation with Iran, and further ventures in conservative humanitarianism, along the lines of Bush’s AIDS-in-Africa initiative.
But the Republican candidates have another reason for giving Bushism a second act: It has more potential to appeal to the broad electorate than other visions of where the GOP should go from here. The enduring popularity of the welfare state makes big-government conservatism far more palatable to voters than the government-cutting purism that Bush’s right-wing critics hope to revive. (In the long run, the country may be forced to choose between keeping spending high and keeping taxes low; in the short term, though, the deficits Bush has run up are not the public’s first priority.) Similarly, although the Iraq War is likely to be an albatross for the Republican Party for years to come, the rest of Bush’s national-security vision—from opposing Iran to pushing domestic measures like the patriot Act—could still command widespread support.
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On “values” issues, the picture is more complicated. There’s no question that the GOP alienated moderate voters in episodes such as the Terri Schiavo case. On the other hand, opposition to gay marriage and abortion are usually political winners for the Republicans (although this could change as tolerance for homosexuality spreads, or if Roe v. Wade is overturned). And the GOP benefits significantly from being cast as the party of religious faith. Despite six years of liberal panic over the specter of a U.S. theocracy, only 29 percent of the public thinks that religion has too much influence in American politics, and almost 80 percent believes that the courts have gone too far in purging religion from the public square. Keeping the party’s socially conservative base happy without losing the country’s religious middle is a challenge, but Bush met it successfully across three election cycles.
It’s those elections, ultimately, that are the most important reason Bushism is likely to endure, at least as a pole star for Republican strategy: the strong showing in 2000, when nearly every economic indicator suggested a landslide for Al Gore; the sweeping win in 2002—an off-year election, when the sitting president’s party historically loses seats; and the victory over John Kerry in 2004, despite plummeting public support for the Iraq War. While journalists and historians debate where Bush went wrong, Republicans are likely to spend the next decade trying to imitate his successes.
It’s possible, of course, that the deep unpopularity of the Iraq War could drag the rest of Bushism down with it, as could the fiscal mess created by the administration’s tax cuts. But predictions of the conservative majority’s demise are premature. Bush-style conservatism probably won’t create a thirty-year Republican realignment, as Karl Rove once hoped, but it has the potential to at least keep the GOP politically competitive.
The perpetuation of Bushism would likely mean that some of today’s most acrimonious debates will persist—the culture-war shouting matches, for instance, or the growing “Who lost Iraq?” controversy. And it would probably mean that neither party will grapple seriously with the country’s fiscal imbalance, at least until the entitlement crunch puts their backs against the wall.
But a continuation of Bushism might also create areas of bipartisan consensus. For instance, evangelicals and liberal internationalists might come together on the use of force for humanitarian ends overseas. Big-government conservatives and populist liberals might agree on the need to address the financial insecurity of working-class families. Indeed, as in the Nixon era, it’s possible that what has made the last six years so polarizing isn’t the president’s ideology but the president himself—his tongue-tied speeches and lack of interest in policy detail, his mix of incompetence and abrasive self-assurance, his cronyism and disdain for compromise. Once Bush has been ushered offstage, a Republican Party fashioned in his image could actually help unite the country, as Bush-the-candidate famously promised to do, rather than divide it.
Photograph: Brooks Kraft/Corbis