As it rebuilds, GOP can’t forget lessons Bush taught
Posted on January 6, 2009
This Originally Appeared in The Politico
Historians will long fight over George W. Bush’s legacy.
The first wave will condemn Bush and his blundering war into Iraq. Revisionists will disagree, pointing to Bush’s efforts to save Africa from itself.
Conservatives will alternately complain about Bush’s overspending and cheer his tax cuts. Neoconservatives will salute his efforts to export American freedom just as they condemn his incompetence.
Liberals will find nothing good in the Bush years, complaining that Bush ascended to the White House illegitimately, on the backs of hanging chads and stolen votes in Florida. They will never give any quarter to him.
The Bush presidency had moments of great success and dizzying failure. Bush himself was a man of great ambition, but his administration delivered only modest results.
He made no little plans. Rather, he painted vast landscapes filled with brilliant colors. But his stroke lacked precision and at times looked amateurish.
Much has been said about Bush’s plan to remake the world in America’s image. Not much has been said about his efforts to remake the Republican Party.
Neither effort was as successful as he had planned, but neither was a complete failure, either.
Bush audaciously promised to remake the world with his freedom agenda. He promised to support democracy and bring down dictators.
Bush also promised to be a compassionate conservative who cared about the health, wealth and future of all Americans.
In fact, Bush tried to remake the Republican Party, changing it from a primarily anti-government party to a conservative pro-government party.
He tried to update the party philosophy from Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s philosophy was born of the reality of Democratic domination of Congress. Reagan tried to eliminate the departments of Education, Energy and Labor, railed against Medicare and Social Security, and pushed for deep tax cuts, deep spending cuts and huge increases in defense spending, knowing that with Democrats controlling Congress, he wouldn’t get all that he wanted.
Bush walked in to a Congress that was dominated by Republicans. He couldn’t afford to push for eliminating the Department of Education or Medicare and Social Security, because he knew that it would leave him politically vulnerable. He agreed with Reagan on the need for deep tax cuts and big increases in defense spending but decided to hold the line on discretionary spending rather than push for deep cuts.
Instead of pushing to eliminate the Department of Education, he demanded more accountability from teachers and from the education establishment. Instead of pushing to eliminate Medicare, he pushed to update the system with a prescription drug benefit and included in that real free-market reforms. Instead of pushing to get rid of Social Security, Bush pushed to reform it with a market approach.
Bush attempted to drag the Republican Party up the mountain of reform and made some progress early on with success on No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Modernization Act. But as the Iraq war dragged on, he steadily lost political capital and finally tumbled back down the hill when his administration bungled its response to Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina will forever be seen as the turning point for the Bush administration.
After that, congressional Republicans turned their backs on the president, running in 2006 on an “all politics is local” platform.
Immigration would be the final straw that would break the back of Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Fueled by rabid talk show furor, conservatives scuttled the president’s reform effort. Hispanic voters left the GOP en masse in 2008.
And now, Republicans are left to ponder the future of their party as they lick their wounds from another terrible election. Most are running from the Bush legacy, actively working against administration efforts to bail out the auto industry. Congressional Republican leaders are pushing the new party line that the failure of the GOP came because they weren’t conservative enough, apparently neglecting to consider that they have actually lost most of their ground in more moderate areas, such as along the coasts and in the suburbs.
President Bush’s legacy is still largely undiscovered. He tried to change the GOP so it could become the governing party. Should Republicans turn their backs on the Bush example and decide to once again become a party of ideology and inflexibility, not a party of ideas, engagement and solutions, Bush’s legacy will be lost.
Much like Herbert Hoover, he will be known as the Republican who killed the Republican Party. But should the Republicans start engaging on all issues while pushing for workable solutions, historians will look more kindly on the past eight years.
The Republican Party does not have to be in the wilderness for the next 40 years. But if it takes the wrong lesson from the past eight years, it might be.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.