Bush the liberal

Over the weekend, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) reflected on his party’s ideological bearings. “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. I would argue that we did lose our way for a while.”

It’s not exactly a mystery what period of time “a while” represents.

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.

Now, it’s tempting to think Republicans would be distancing themselves from Bush and his legacy because he failed so spectacularly, and the GOP wants to avoid the stench of the eight-year fiasco.

But that’s not what this is about. Rather, party officials and activists are looking back at the Bush/Cheney era and rejecting the policies of the Republican administration on ideological grounds.

For the GOP, Bush was wrong about everything from education (NCLB) to health care (Medicare Part D), immigration (comprehensive reform) to international aid (PEPFAR), national service (AmeriCorps, USA Freedom Corp) to foreign policy (growing Republican skepticism about Afghanistan).

Even on taxes, Republican presidential hopefuls are inclined to make Bush look like Robin Hood, with new measures that would cost more and be tilted more dramatically in favor of the rich.

Never mind that Republicans supported nearly all of Bush’s agenda when he was actually in office — they’ve now decided to go in a new direction.

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.

But even more interesting to me is the implicit message the Republican Party is bringing to voters: vote GOP in 2012 because the party now believes George W. Bush was a big liberal.

I’m skeptical this will work. As Bush left office, I suspect the number of Americans thinking, “Bush would have been a better president if only he wasn’t such a left-winger” was fairly small.