NEW ORLEANS — Republicans head into 2012 united in their disdain for an unpopular, big government-loving, internationalist president.
The name of that president: George W. Bush.
From Capitol Hill to the statehouses to the presidential primary, Republicans are turning their back on almost every important accomplishment of the Bush administration.
Bush’s attempt to reposition the GOP to the center-right has been rejected in favor of an unmodified brand of conservatism that would rather leave people alone than lift them up with any “armies of compassion.” Many of Bush’s distinctive policy ideas have fallen by the wayside, replaced by a nearly single-minded focus on reducing the size of government.
Twelve years after the then-Texas governor chastised his party’s congressional leaders for attempting to “balance their budget on the backs of the poor,” it’s unthinkable that any serious Republican presidential hopeful would attempt to get to the left of the congressional GOP.
As Bush’s successor in Austin illustrated in a jeremiad at a Republican conference here this weekend, potential White House hopefuls now are competing to prove their conservative bona fides—and any criticism of their own party is for its purported drift away from principle.
“It saddens me, sometimes, when my fellow Republicans duck and cover in the face of pressure from the left,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in his red-meat-filled address Saturday.
Republicans now openly condemn the bailout programs Bush initiated for banks and auto companies. Members of Congress look on the No Child Left Behind Law with suspicion. Few will defend the Medicare prescription drug benefit; and the only acceptable party line now on immigration reform is “No Amnesty.”
In their determination to be the party of uncompromising fiscal discipline, it also seems unlikely Republicans today would support some of Bush’s smaller-scale accomplishments, such as creating the USA Freedom Corps, expanding funding for faith-based initiatives and launching the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
And in last week’s New Hampshire presidential debate, the Republican field even edged away from the Bush administration’s activist foreign policy, condemning the intervention in Libya and calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan.
It adds up to a comprehensive and unmistakable rejection of the Bush legacy - and above all, of Bush’s platform of “compassionate conservatism” that was supposed to give the GOP a permanent electoral majority.
“I think what you’re seeing is the Republican Party going back to its conservative roots and, yes, going back to its core principles and I think that’s a good thing,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in an interview here, adding: “I would argue that we did lose our way for a while.”
Jindal, who was an official in Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services and served two terms in Congress during the Bush era, cites No Child Left Behind as an example of wayward Republicanism.
“How does it make sense for Republicans to be imposing this one-size-fits-all approach from the federal level onto the states and the local school board when we’ve always believed that government that governs closest to the people governs best?” he asked.
Bush administration veterans say a host of forces have reordered the GOP’s priorities, with the weak economy, the Obama presidency and subsequent rise of the tea party movement chief among them.
“I mean, it’s the economy, stupid. We had the luxury, if you will, in the immediate aftermath of the election and before 9/11, to focus on those kinds of things. The economy was ok,” said former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “It wasn’t the terrible economic time it is now.”
Spellings said it would be tough for many of Bush’s landmark accomplishments to pass Congress today, suggesting: “What’s really surprising is we got them where they were eight years ago, when George Bush was a different kind of Republican.”
Ed Gillespie, the Republican National Committee chairman for Bush’s 2004 re-election and a senior White House official in the second term, argued that space between the two parties had widened in the last decade in part because of the shift within the Democratic Party away from Bill Clinton’s centrism.
“The most significant thing that has changed are the circumstances,” Gillespie said. “The band people were operating in was a much narrower band [when Bush came to office]. The differences between Clinton and the Third Way and Bush and compassionate conservatism were much narrower than what they’ll be between Obama and the Republican nominee.”
But that’s not just because of leftward movement in the Democratic Party.
Consider the Republican debate last week in New Hampshire. The candidates spoke almost entirely in boilerplate conservative terms, endorsing spending cuts, tax cuts, sweeping regulatory rollbacks, a crackdown on illegal immigration and devolving as much power as possible back to the states.
That’s a far cry from the agenda Bush ran on in 2000, and it’s not enough to satisfy some Bush alums who remain convinced the party needs a “robust domestic agenda,” as former Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland put it.
“I worry that we need to hear more about what each candidate’s opportunity agenda is,” said Bridgeland, who headed the White House Domestic Policy Council under Bush. “Whether it’s immigration or education or a whole host of issues relating to promoting an opportunity society.”
Pete Wehner, a top policy adviser in the Bush White House, said Republicans ought to be cautious about taking their rhetoric too far.
“I worry that there’s a temptation to denigrate government, that skepticism toward government becomes a sort of corrosive cynicism about government,” said Wehner, noting that Washington can be a force for good on such matters as combating disease in Africa.
And many Bushies believe the party’s continued refusal to make a deal on immigration reform and the nativist tone of some conservative activists will consign the GOP to irrelevance as the country’s changing demographics take hold over the long-term.
“If you look at it purely from a political standpoint, Republicans in Texas and throughout the nation are going to get their clocks cleaned eventually if they don’t reach an agreement on immigration,” said former White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett.
A few of Bush’s accomplishments have stood the test of time on the right. The party still runs on his anti-terrorism record. Republicans won a fight last year to extend the raft of tax cuts Bush signed into law. And the kind of market-oriented solution to the entitlement crisis that the former president proposed with regard to Social Security is at the heart of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) road map.
But, in what may be the most remarkable repudiation of Bushism, the party’s foreign policy center is moving from the neoconservative “freedom agenda” that the former president advanced toward the more realist outlook advanced by his father.
With a Democratic president in the White House, a sour economy and war weariness, both the congressional GOP and the Republican presidential candidates are much less inclined toward interventionism.
House Speaker John Boehner had to pass a resolution rebuking the president’s handling of Libya earlier this month in part to head off his own caucus making common cause with the anti-war faction of the Democratic left in the House and passing a resolution authored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that called for an end of American involvement in the conflict.
As demonstrated on the New Hampshire debate stage last week, there’s similar exhaustion in mainstream GOP ranks over the country’s decade-long war in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s moving faster and faster to the recognition that we shouldn’t be in the nation-building business in Afghanistan,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told reporters in New Orleans about the party’s consensus. “That if our role there is still to win the war on terror that the administration has got to make a convincing case to the American people that 100,000 American troops on the ground and $2 billion a week is the proper way to deal with 100 al Qaeda.”
Stalwart interventionists like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the Sunday shows yesterday to counter such thinking and warn against incipient isolationism.
It might be too late though. A more skeptical view toward projecting U.S. force abroad has unambiguously taken hold within much of the party and that development, perhaps more than any other shift from the previous administration, worries Bush loyalists.
“[Bush] would strongly argue that even in tough economic times the United States can’t abdicate its leadership responsibilities around the world,” said Bartlett of his former boss and still close friend.
“There are a number of folks who are concerned that there is a false sense of security now,” added another senior Bush administration official, who did not want to be quoted criticizing the party’s presidential candidates. “If we’re not engaged, particularly in the Mideast, we’ll regret that.”
With greater distance from Bush’s two terms, it seems increasingly clear that his effort to re-brand the party was an aberration. Should Republicans run on unadulterated conservatism and lose next year even amid a weak economy, that might change. Someone could emerge from the ashes and push a David Cameron-style effort to modernize the GOP in a fashion that would vindicate Dallas’s most famous retiree.
But, for now, they’re returned to that old-time conservative religion.
“What this has taught us - Bush 41 and Bush 43 both taught us - is that this is the Reagan Republican Party,” said Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist. “Those bits where Bush deviated from Reagan’s direction either didn’t work or have gone in the memory hole.”
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.