Republicans And The Legacy Of George W. Bush
Republicans haven't really moved beyond the legacy of George W. Bush's failed Administration as much as they'd like to think, but it doesn't seem to be hurting them very much.
In a piece late last week that came out in the wake of the reports about former President George H.W. Bush’s comments about some of his eldest son’s advisers in the White House, NBC’s First Read suggests that Republicans still haven’t figured out how to deal with the legacy of George W. Bush:
If there’s a bigger story behind the last 24 hours of back-and-forth over George H.W. Bush’s comments about Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld not serving his son well, it’s maybe this — the Republican Party still hasn’t resolved George W. Bush’s legacy. And it’s not just a problem for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign; it’s a problem for the entire party. You see this when it comes to the presidential field’s rhetoric on ISIS and Russia (is military force and swagger the best approach, or is it diplomacy and multilateralism?); you see it when it comes to debates about the size of government (is government spending a force for good or bad?); you see it when it comes to tax cuts (should they be skewed to the Top 1% or to the middle class?); and you see it when it comes to immigration (was Bush right or wrong to pursue comprehensive immigration reform?). Yes, the Republican Party is back in control of the House and Senate after the Bush 43 years. And, yes, the GOP continues to win political races (see this week’s contest in Kentucky). Yet perhaps the Republican Party’s biggest challenge in winning back the White House in 2016 is resolving — once and for all — what happened from 2001-2008.
On some level, this take seems correct based on how Republicans seem to react when you talk about George W. Bush’s Presidency.
My experience over recent years has been that f you ask Republicans, even the most conservative ones among them, what they think of the Bush 43 Administration, you’ll get a mixed bag of responses. There remains a strong core of them who are fiercely loyal to the former President and his closest advisers such as former Vice-President Cheney, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former United National Ambassador John Bolton. In the eyes of these people, there was very little that they will let the second Bush Administration be accused of without vigorously defending him and his record and insisting that anything that went wrong, such as the current state of Iraq and the rise of ISIS, has strictly been Barack Obama’s fault. Even the economy, which had entered one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression, wasn’t Bush’s fault; instead, these conservatives will tell you that everything from Federal Reserve policy to laws intending to loosen mortgage lending passed in the Clinton Administration were to blame. The only thing that Bush seems to get the blame for from this crowd was a failed effort at immigration reform during his second term. Somewhere in the middle you’ll find a group of conservatives who are willing to admit that the Bush Administration made mistakes, but would really rather not talk about the whole thing. Finally, there is a relatively small group of conservatives who will readily admit that Bush screwed up, but they’ll tell you it was because he wasn’t conservative enough and that his mistakes can’t fairly be said to be the fault of conservatism or the Republican Party.
Beyond how Republicans react to the Bush Administration’s legacy, though, the truth is that the Republican Party hasn’t really changed very much since George W. Bush left office. Even with the rise of the Tea Party, which at least on paper claims to rebuke many of the domestic policies of his Presidency, the differences between the Republican Party of today and the record of the Bush Administration is, at best nominal. The most obvious area where this is the case, of course, is in foreign policy. With the obvious exception of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and a handful of House Members such as Walter Jones out of North Carolina, nearly all prominent Republicans are just as strongly interventionist as the party was during the Bush Administration, if not more so. The critiques of Obama Administration policy in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere one hears from Republicans generally argue that he hasn’t been aggressive and interventionist enough, not that he’s been too interventionist. On domestic policy, perhaps, Republicans have moved further to the right than they were during the Bush years, but to the extent that this has made it harder for them to actually do anything constructive with their control of Congress, that’s not exactly helpful. So, when you get right down to it, the Republican Party today isn’t that much different from it was when George W. Bush was President.
Despite all of that, though, and notwithstanding the fact that Republicans remain largely unwilling to confront the Bush legacy in a negative way, it’s hard to say that the way Republicans have actually been damaged. Yes, they lost the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, but there was probably no way any Republican was going to win in 2008 given the state of things and unseating a relatively popular incumbent President when the economy is generally strong is never an easy thing to do. Moreover, it’s hard to deny the GOP’s success in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, which have reversed the losses they suffered in Congress in 2006 and 2008 and have won solid control of state legislatures around the country that will serve the party well for years to come. Even if the GOP loses the White House in 2016, they will almost assuredly hold on to the House, have a decent chance of holding the Senate even if they lose their most vulnerable seats, and will probably maintain most of their control at the state level absent a tidal wave election for Democrats that seems unlikely in the current political climate. Given all of that, it’s hard to make the argument to Republicans that they are still hobbled by the legacy of George W. Bush, and unless that changes it strikes me that the fretting that First Read engages in here is most than just a bit overblown.