The Republican Revolution is over. What went wrong?
Before I try to answer that question, a few words by Dr. Donald Prahlow, my high school history instructor, seem pertinent. In 1992 when Bill Clinton took the White House, Dr. Prahlow stood in front of a classroom full of young, mostly right-leaning students and tried to make sense of what happened. "As a historian, I have to say the best thing that can happen, when one political party has been in power for a long time, is to hand power over to the other one." He went on to give some examples. The most important thing I took from his brief aside before getting onto the day’s regularly scheduled lecture was that no president in history has ever been able to wreck the country irreparably in four or even eight years.
Not Richard Nixon. Not Warren G. Harding. Not Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite my strong feelings on that day in 1992, not William Jefferson Clinton. And regardless of your feelings on the two men, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama will be the first.
And I believe that what went wrong with the Republican Revolution, which started with the stunning 1994 comeback in both houses of Congress, is largely the neoconservative movement and George W. Bush.
What’s sad is that the end all started with so much potential. I vividly remember Bill Clinton, interviewed on the evening news on either ABC, NBC or CBS around 2002 or 2003 talking about Bush. He said he thought Bush would be very successful early on, because of two words that are largely forgotten today: compassionate conservatism. I’m paraphrasing, but basically Clinton said that if Bush could deliver Democratic-like social programs while delivering lower taxes, it would be almost impossible for the Democratic party to compete with that.
Unfortunately, nothing ever came of that. Rather than being remembered as the president who popularized compassionate conservatism, we’ll remember the image of Bush flying over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, looking out of touch and perhaps a bit over his head. Or we’ll remember the bothced recovery effort, which was long on excuses but painfully short on results.
The other Bush promise that never turned into anything was his bipartisanship. As governor of Texas, he had the reputation for reaching out to Democrats and working with them. Unfortunately, as president, we saw a man with little tolerance for anyone who disagreed with him, even if they were members of his own party.
In all fairness, it’s difficult to know how much of what we saw was Bush, and how much of it really was Dick Cheney. And that’s another failing of the Bush presidency: He failed to stand up to Cheney when necessary and put him in his place. The ticket read Bush-Cheney, but
often it seemed the reality was Cheney-Bush.
I don’t think I need to even bring up the wars.
Ultimately, all that came back to bite John McCain. The John McCain who stood up to Bush in 2000 was largely absent in 2008. It’s entirely possible that voters would have punished McCain for the sins of Bush no matter what, but ultimately, McCain didn’t do enough to distance himself from his predecessor. Certainly he risked alienating the 28% of the population who approved of Bush in doing so, but he fell into the same trap the Democrats fell into repeatedly in the 1990s when trying to appease the far left fringes of its party. As long as McCain managed to stay to the right of the Democrats, the minority of the population who favored Bush wasn’t going to abandon him and vote for Obama. McCain needed to concentrate on getting 23% from the center of the spectrum.
Meanwhile, while McCain was failing to distance himself enough from Bush (and was showing he was perfectly capable of being out of touch), Obama was showing up on the Sunday morning political shows, demonstrating that he read things, including newspapers, including the op-ed pages, including the parts written by people he didn’t always agree with. After 8 years of an administration whose idea of keeping informed was listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News, he probably seemed refreshing.
So what’s next?
The comeback doesn’t have to take as long this time. Remember, the only thing less popular than Bush right now is the Democrat-controlled Congress. They get a pass right now because they’re mostly unpopular for not standing up to Bush. But if the new, bigger Democratic majority fails to get desired results, there’s no reason to believe the electorate will be so sympathetic in two years.
So the Republican party needs to be ready. It has until the 2010 primaries to find its soul, to figure out what it stands for.
For their sake and everyone else’s, I hope it involves smaller and more efficient government and taking the Constitution in its entirety seriously.
And in the meantime, we have a man in the White House who embodies the American Dream and who personifies the result of decades of struggle. Whatever you think of his politics, he will inspire a generation or more, and a lot of good can come from that.