Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Now President Bush Tells Us"

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote an article this week entitled, "The GOP, C'est Moi," finally giving conservatives an admission straight from the horse's mouth that, yes, it's true: George W. Bush never considered himself to be "one of us", a conservative. The article is subtitled, "Now President Bush tells us."

Mr. Bush is quoted as having said, "Look, I know this probably sounds arrogant to say, but I redefined the Republican Party."

Mr. Fund poses the final rhetorical question: "That may have been true, but how well did that work out for the Republican Party?"


As in, Mr. Bush did indeed change the Republican Party -- from "in power" to "out of power." Neither Bush -- father or son -- ever seemed to understand the importance of cultivating their own power base. The energy and drive of a political party comes from those who embrace the ideas upon which the party is based -- the "ideologues", if you will. Most ideologues are savvy enough about politics to know that you can't win every engagement -- that you have to give as well as take. But when it starts to look like your champion is playing for the other team, it demoralizes them. And when they are demoralized, they stay home. They do not contribute money. They do not get out and vote. There is no one to man the booths, to place the phone calls, to solicit the checks.

Both Presidents Bush were famous for being "pragmatic" rather than ideological. But pragmatism is not a philosophy. The word pragmatism has no meaning unless there are policy goals that one is forced to be pragmatic about. Policies "that work" are only desirable if they are working toward a goal that is deemed desirable by some set of ideals.

In the case of both Presidents Bush, there was never any philosophy behind the compromises, and there was never any pro quo in return for the quid. A compromise under such constraints looks more like a surrender -- and elicits a "What a chump I've been!" moment for anyone who gave blood, sweat, tears, money, and votes for their champion.

In the case of the elder Bush, that moment arrived when he broke the only substantive promise he had made during the 1988 campaign: "Read my lips -- no new taxes." The "compromise"? Bush would sign drastic new tax measures (in the midst of a recession, yet) in return for...? A promise by the Democrats not to use breaking his tax promise against him in the election. (Of course, the Democrats broke that promise, and I don't blame them one bit. As W. C. Fields said, "Never give a sucker an even break.")

In Bush the Younger's case, the moment arrived when he nominated his crony, Harriet Miers, as his first Supreme Court nominee. Why her? Because she was on then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's short list of nominees who would not be filibustered by the Democrats. In other words: Bush wanted to avoid a fight. It was that simple.

Problem is, it was a fight conservatives had been spoiling for. For many years.

Conservatives volunteered in record numbers for the Bush campaign in 2004. It's not that they loved Bush. What they wanted was a chance to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice. By 2004, we already knew we couldn't expect much from Bush in terms of conservative policy or dealing with a fiscally incontinent Congress. But, man, we wanted those conservatives on the court. That was the prize. That was our compromise.

But there was nothing in Miers' record to indicate that she would have been a particularly conservative justice -- and indeed, some reason to suggest otherwise. (She had been a registered Democrat, for example.) After the disastrous Republican nominations of liberal stalwart Justice Souter and the intellectually flighty O'Connor, they wanted more assurance than a wink from the President that she would fit in fine with conservative expectations. They wanted a bona fide conservative, with an unambiguous judicial track record and a trail of outraged liberals to prove it. The worst part of the whole deal was the kowtowing to Senator Reid. If the Republican Party was unwilling to fight for a conservative nominee with a 55-seat majority in the Senate, when would they ever fight? Bush reluctantly backed down and, to his credit, did under duress nominate Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito -- but only after being pushed back against a wall by his own supporters.

Later in his second term, George W. Bush did it again by supporting an illegal immigrant amnesty bill. Even worse, when conservatives grumbled, he wheeled on them and called them "bigots." At the time, these same conservatives were the only ones left who were still speaking up for Mr. Bush.

That's funny: Bush liked conservatives just fine when they were voting for him.

And did this betrayal of the conservative agenda make the liberals like him any better?

This is the award-winning recipe for leaving office with historically-low approval ratings: make your friends as well as your enemies angry at you. When you're in a fight, it can be fatal not to know who your friends are. Thus should read President George W. Bush's political epitaph. A Republican cannot succeed by pandering to liberals, as they feel entitled to it. The opposite of entitled is grateful.

The resulting political fallout forced the amnesty bill's demise, but conservatives got an even clearer look at the man they had supported in two elections.

So the revelation contained in Mr. Fund's article comes as no surprise at least to this conservative.

Republicans have never figured out that they can't make liberals like them better by doing liberal things. However, they can make conservatives hate them. Voting for Benedict Arnold because, "After all, he's less of a monarchist than King George III" eventually loses its allure.

There's another way to increase the size of the party's base that doesn't require selling out its ideals: argue your case. Republicans should try it sometime. Stop playing "prevent defense" and play instead to win. When Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, he ran as a conservative, and won by comfortable majorities (by a landslide in 1984). If Reagan could have run for a third term, he would have won that election as well. But Reagan could defend his ideals and was willing to take the time and trouble to do so.

One of George W. Bush's unquestionable accomplishments is that, once and for all, he has ruined the "lesser of two liberals" strategy for future Republican campaigns. If Republicans wish to become relevant again, they will need to embrace their inner conservative. And mean it.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Bush I's nickname as a lad was "have-half" and came from his willingness to compromise in most every situation. Half is better than none in some cases, like having half a candy bar is better than having none, but not all situations lend themselves to compromise and "having half" is really having none. Bush II hookwinked us conservatives, we thought him to me more conservatuive than daddy, more Reagan than Bush, but alas, an acorn does not often fall far from the tree.