I’ve never thought most progressives understood the psychological necessities behind the conservative movement’s repudiation of George W. Bush, the president who was twice nominated and elected (with the usual qualification about 2000) as the united candidate of that movement more than anyone since Ronald Reagan (and maybe even exceeding him on that score). It wasn’t just that he was “a loser” or left office unpopular or was associated with a financial crisis and a Great Recession. No, it was and remains important to them to insist that he failed for every reason other than conservative ideology.
One of their own, Ramesh Ponnuru, calls them out on this score in a column that really ought to be read ritually at every Republican gathering heading into a fresh election cycle:
The Republican Party was already in poor shape when [Bush] took control. It had lost two presidential elections in a row to Bill Clinton. Republicans had taken Congress in 1994 because the public didn’t want unified Democratic control of the government. But the defeat of Congress’s attempts, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to restrain Medicare spending and shut down Cabinet departments had left the party without any clear direction. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by almost as much as they do now.
To be competitive in 2000, Bush had to distance himself from the Gingrich image. He adopted a softer tone than other Republicans, made clear that he was no enemy of the government programs that voters like, and broadened the party’s agenda to include revitalizing charity rather than just railing against federal spending. He also joined the rest of his party in supporting a new prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens….
By midway through Bush’s second term, it was clear that this strategy was a dead end. The U.S. military was losing in Iraq, and Republicans weren’t willing to admit it, let alone change policy. (Eventually, Bush did change course, with the surge, but by then the public had made up its mind.) The economy wasn’t delivering rising wages for most people. The government wasn’t demonstrating competence in responding to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Congressional Republicans were more concerned with staying in power — and covering up their colleagues’ scandals — than in reforms to address any of these issues. No wonder they got the boot in the 2006 elections. When a recession and then a financial crisis hit before the 2008 elections, voters punished the Republicans a second time.
The failure of the Bush project led many conservatives to think that what Republicans needed, above all, was to purify their resistance to big government. The events of 2008-2010 — bailouts, huge deficits, Obama’s health-care overhaul — reinforced this idea. In the 2010 elections, the new tack seemed to work: The public reacted against unchecked Democratic power in Washington by giving the House back to Republicans.
Yet the political circumstances that moved Bush to adopt his strategy hadn’t fundamentally changed. Voters were willing to give Republicans the ability to act as a check on big government in 2010 as they had been in 1994. But in 2012, as in 1996, voters wanted Republicans to stand for more than hostility to government before they would trust the party with a governing majority.
I have to quibble here: Ponnuru is making the common mistake of generalizing about “voters” too much; part of the 2010 Republican victory (and their 2012 defeat) was the sudden strict alignment of both parties with the age and ethnic fault lines that made midterms an inherent Republican paradise and presidential elections a nightmare. But all the same, he’s right: conservatives wildly overinterpreted 2010 as a permanent mandate for an ideological bender. And thus, here they are today still demanding more purity and partisanship.
Conservatives rejected Bushism without demonstrating any understanding of why it was adopted in the first place, or why it was rejected. That’s George W. Bush’s political legacy: a weakened Republican Party unable to face its flaws.
There’s another way to look at it that has merit, too: A lot of conservatives would prefer to lose elections pretty regularly if their “purity” enables them to engage in a vast wrecking enterprise on the rare occasions the GOP wins big. (Clearly, a lot of them were anticipating exactly this kind of opportunity had Mitt Romney and the congressional GOP all won in 2012.) They blame Bush for trying to “reach out” beyond the base and thus diluting the GOP’s agenda when he should have been trying to disable the New Deal and Great Society as rapidly as possible (this take involves forgetting the disastrous results of his 2005 effort to privatize Social Security). That’s worth remembering looking forward: many conservatives sincerely believe a savagely ideological party can win national elections, but many others would rather be right than to compromise their “principles,” lest victory bring disappointments like the Bush years. After all, they’ve been waiting since 1964 for a real chance to roll back the twentieth century. Waiting a bit longer is no big deal.