Commentary Magazine


Bush and the Republican Future

Weeks before he took the oath of office, George W. Bush already seemed a man condemned to a presidency of limited expectations. Remarking on his apparent lack of any electoral mandate, the Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that Bush was entering the Washington power struggle shorn of the strongest weapon any President could have in dealing with Congress—a healthy fear of defying his wishes. Concern about Bush’s ability to lead was evident as well among those already disposed to approve of conservative Republican politicians, with Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard both wondering aloud how Bush could ever govern effectively.

Such doubts seemed, and still seem, entirely understandable. As even his supporters would have to concede, Bush may have been the least-prepared candidate to assume the office of the presidency in the past century. Unlike Bill Clinton, who had been active in state politics for fifteen years, Bush served barely more than a single term in a state with one of the least powerful gubernatorial offices in the country. (The Texas legislature meets for only a few months every other year, and the governor lacks the power even to appoint members of his own cabinet.) In sharp contrast to his father, moreover, the younger Bush had no substantive experience in national politics or foreign affairs, had never held an appointed position in federal government, and boasted no prior history as a student of public policy. Unlike Reagan, Ford, Nixon, or Eisenhower, all of whom were established national figures when they assumed the presidency, Bush was virtually unknown to the public until two years before he announced his intention to run.

Of course, what Bush lacked in political experience he made up for in political pedigree, having served as adviser and sometime enforcer in his father’s administration. But that hardly seemed to balance his shortcomings, so well chronicled by the press. In addition to the ones just named, these included the fact that he was persistently and embarrassingly inarticulate, that he had rarely traveled outside the U.S., that he seemed to have no deeply held views about government or burning mission to become President, and that his adult life appeared unburdened by any concern for the great policy questions of our age.

Aside from Bush’s own lack of credentials and his questionable skills, there was also the fact that Republican strength in Congress had been eroding. Although Republicans did emerge from the November election with their majority in the House intact, the energy and boldness they once brought to that chamber had clearly diminished since their halcyon days after the 1994 mid-term elections. In the Senate, Republicans lost four seats to create an evenly divided chamber, and they now hold on to their majority status only through the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President. That majority, and the procedural power that comes with it, will vanish should either Strom Thurmond (a year short of his hundredth birthday) or Jesse Helms (seventy-nine and in poor health) die in office, since their replacements would be selected by the Democratic governors of their respective states.

In a sense, then, Bush’s victory, itself won after a protracted legal process and devoid of any real sense of triumph, could be viewed as marking not the beginning of a new, post-Clinton era but as the last gasp of an earlier one—the era of muscular, confident, conservative Republicanism that first drew breath with the election of Ronald Reagan more than twenty years ago. And indeed it is no idle thought that, despite his win, the results of the recent election were actually an ominous sign for Republicans.

As described recently by Terry Teachout (“Republican Nation, Democratic Nation?,” COMMENTARY, January), Bush captured a huge but also tightly defined swath of territory stretching from the Rocky Mountains, to the Midwest, and through the South, while Al Gore won virtually every major metropolitan, industrial, and suburban area. These latter are the redoubts of the growing class of “knowledge workers” in the new economy. In the opinion of some, the members of this new and rising class—“more affluent, educated, diverse, suburban, ‘wired,’ and ‘moderate,’ ” to quote Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council—will be the “dominant voters of the Information Age.” Pointing especially to the voting patterns among women, John Judis warned in the New Republic that unless the GOP somehow manages to jettison the socially conservative base it gained during the 80′s, Republicans “will increasingly be stuck on the losing side of the national political debate.”

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Whether one agrees with these specific predictions or not, there is no denying that the GOP has indeed become a party in decline. Many of the issues and conflicts that energized Republicans over the past twenty years have dissipated or disappeared altogether. Even more significantly, from the perspective of presidential politics, the electoral coalition that emerged at the end of the 1970′s to sweep Ronald Reagan into office no longer exists in any meaningful form.

Two decades ago, that surprising alliance—of corporate Republicans, libertarians, religious conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks—shifted the political landscape and created a newly potent force in American politics. But it did not presage a permanent realignment. The Reagan coalition was the product of the historic circumstances that Reagan himself identified in his 1980 campaign: an expanding and aggressive Soviet Union, waning American confidence at home and abroad, insupportably high levels of taxation, and widespread distrust of the federal government.

That the Reagan coalition should eventually have fallen apart is thus hardly a mystery. The Soviet Union collapsed. Taxes were cut. Confidence returned. The federal budget was balanced. In time, the party’s libertarians and cultural conservatives drifted off to pursue other, sometimes conflicting, political agendas.

Other blows, too, struck at the unity that Republicans had enjoyed for most of the 1980′s. One of them was the rise of Patrick J. Buchanan. In the early 90′s, Buchanan, a former Nixon speechwriter and Reagan adviser, emerged as an evangelist for economic and military isolationism; his success in the 1992 Republican primary in New Hampshire stunned the elder George Bush, whose hapless campaign for re-election never fully recovered. Although Buchanan would become both crankier and more irrelevant with each passing year, finally leaving the GOP altogether, he was early to grasp the fact that free trade and foreign military engagement—two of the bedrock principles of Reaganism—no longer commanded immediate support in Republican ranks. Despite the differences between the two men, Buchanan’s anti-Washington and anti-free-trade sentiments opened the door to Ross Perot, the populist spoiler for the GOP in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996.

The other outsized personality the GOP had to deal with in the 1990′s was Newt Gingrich. As a strategist and inside warrior, and as a critic of the welfare state, Gingrich may have been the best and most articulate leader the modern Republican party has ever had. Without his organizing abilities, his rhetorical forays against the Democratic barons of Congress, and his Contract with America, it is unlikely the party could have achieved its majorities in both the House and Senate in 1994. But Gingrich turned out to be a much more myopic and flawed Speaker than his impassioned pursuit of the job would have led anyone to believe.

Once in the Speaker’s office, Gingrich became obsessed by polling data. At the same time, paradoxically enough, he devoted boundless energy to legislative battles that failed to resonate with voters and were doomed to defeat. Though he did reform the rules of the House of Representatives, making it more open and accountable, he was much less effective in shaping and arguing for a national agenda. And in a period when Republicans needed to broaden their base of support, Gingrich’s vituperative personality and displays of personal pique only antagonized the public.

Gingrich’s 1995 confrontation with Clinton over shutting down the federal government during budget negotiations was a public-relations misstep that severely damaged voters’ perception of the party. After 1998, spooked by their setbacks in the midterm elections, the congressional Republicans became a cautious lot. While continuing to argue for many traditional GOP policies, they seemed to be without any clear set of policy goals, and concomitantly to have lost their ability to capture public enthusiasm.

Much of their problem was surely related to a rarely acknowledged fact: tax cuts, once the signature issue of the party, were no longer the galvanizing force they had earlier been. In 1993, the GOP did manage (with the help of moderate Democrats) to defeat Bill Clinton’s first effort to raise both energy and income taxes. But Clinton’s second crack at a stimulus package passed, thereby effectively dismantling the chief accomplishment of the supply-side revolution of the 1980′s.

When Clinton signed the 1993 bill, some in the GOP saw it as tantamount to his signing his own death warrant. And indeed the tax increase, coupled with Clinton’s failed attempt to create a centralized health-care system, undoubtedly contributed to the drubbing the Democrats received in the 1994 mid-term elections. But already by then tax cuts were losing their magic for Republicans.

The economy, fueled by the technology boom, was entering a period of unprecedented growth by the mid-90′s, and its robustness seemed clearly to disprove Republican predictions that Clinton’s tax increases would precipitate a recession. In short order, the Democrats recovered their confidence. Led by the White House, they successfully assaulted the tax cuts then being proposed by House Republicans—what Gingrich called the “crown jewel” of the Contract with America—as “reckless,” “irresponsible,” and “a giveaway to the wealthiest Americans.” During the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole’s modest plan for a 15-percent, across-the-board income tax was predictably ridiculed by Democrats. Worse, it aroused barely a ripple of reaction among voters, and never came close to becoming a defining issue in the election.

As the decade drew to a close, although Republicans were still advocating tax cuts, the proposals being put forth were minimal. The party that only a few years earlier had dreamed of tearing up the federal tax code, creating a flat tax, and eliminating capital-gains taxes had retreated to a few incremental measures like eliminating the marriage tax and phasing out estate taxes.

Yet if tax cuts had lost their force as an issue, the party was also unable to come together on much else. Preparing to select a nominee for the 2000 election, the GOP could boast no internal consensus on how to reform Medicare or Social Security, and no single view on what to do with the growing federal budget surplus. Within the party, there were bitter divisions over foreign engagement and military spending. On abortion, trade, immigration, debt reduction, and antitrust policy, no unity was to be found.

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This, then, was the background—a divided electorate, razor-thin majorities in Congress, and disarray in the ranks on what the party stood for—against which George W. Bush campaigned for and eventually entered office. To be sure, Bush seemed somewhat different from the sort of Republican that Washington had become used to over the last twenty years: in his inaugural address, for example, he would characteristically speak not of government, its size and scope, but of individuals and of the duties citizens owe one another. But even so, a plausible reading of his campaign oratory was that, as President, Bush would be a West Texas version of his father—an establishment Republican filled with the spirit of noblesse oblige who had promised his own version of “compassionate conservatism” and had turned out to be merely a diligent public servant with no clear sense of political mission.

All along, however, there were also grounds for thinking otherwise. As his campaign hinted, and as his first days and weeks in the White House would confirm, Bush’s emphasis on aiding the poor, the disabled, and minorities not only differentiated him from other Republicans but formed the banner under which he advanced what were some truly bold ideas.

During the campaign, up to and including the Republican convention in Philadelphia, Bush’s theme of “compassionate conservatism,” while vague and occasionally tedious, served a clear strategic purpose: disassociating him in the public mind from either the confrontational stance of the Gingrich years or the more libertarian impulses of the Reagan era. It was no accident that the Republican officials most prominent in Washington—Trent Lott, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay—were kept at arm’s length from Bush campaign headquarters in Austin, or that, at the convention in July, congressional leaders were conspicuous by their absence from the podium in prime time. In their place was a mostly new cast of Republican faces, all apparently selected to emphasize the racial, ethnic, and even ideological diversity of the party.

While the four days in Philadelphia often lapsed into sugarcoated self-parody, it was hard to argue with the results: in the weeks following the convention, Bush received high marks from the press and a “bounce” in the polls. In the words of Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, the “key to Bush’s strength” was precisely his theme of compassionate conservatism, promoting an image of the Texas governor as a Republican whom voters could think of as “someone like me.”

In the meantime, there was also much more to Bush’s strategy than the desire to project an image of amiable, bipartisan bonhomie. Out of the campaign there flowed a whole series of thoughtful speeches and detailed policy proposals on the very topics on which the GOP was floundering. Bush’s tax-reduction plan, proposing a cut in rates for every taxpayer, was far more ambitious than anything offered by the Republican majorities in either the House or Senate. His plan to allow Americans to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts was the most detailed attempt by any presidential candidate in history to reform a program long thought to be politically untouchable. In education and health care, Bush offered new ideas for transforming the federal role, relying more on competition and market forces and giving local governments far greater authority over policy. In foreign affairs, he vigorously advocated the idea of principled American engagement abroad and voiced unequivocal support for a national missile defense.

It was often remarked during the campaign, usually in a spirit of derision, that the neophyte Bush had surrounded himself with a protective phalanx of advisers, a number of whom had served in his father’s administration. What was less noticed was that these individuals—from the economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay to foreign-policy types like Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz—were not the usual industry representatives or Washington lawyers who ritually swarm around political campaigns. On every issue, Bush seemed to reach out to intellectuals who defied easy categorization, and who also reflected a maturity that characterized the entire campaign. (Not coincidentally, Bush’s was the only campaign in memory to seem relatively free of back-stabbing, infighting, and self-destructive leaks to the press.)

The impression made by the campaign was deepened by Bush’s post-election choices for his cabinet. Although critics charged that he was simply filling his White House with retreads from his father’s or Gerald Ford’s administration (Dick Cheney as Vice President, Andrew Card as chief of staff), the team that emerged was more eclectic than anyone could have expected. In picking Donald Rumsfeld to head the Pentagon, Gale Norton as Interior Secretary, Tommy Thompson for the Department of Health and Human Services, Linda Chavez (however briefly) for Labor, Mitch Daniels at the Office of Management and Budget, and John J. DiIulio for the newly created White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bush seems to have deliberately gone after men and women who had spent much of their lives advancing bold new policy ideas, often to the chagrin of establishment thinking. Taken together, his team represented an unusually powerful mix of intellectual independence, political experience, and conservative instincts.

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As for the governing agenda spelled out in his inaugural address, this, too, was a departure. Since Ronald Reagan left office, Republicans have persistently backed a program centered on the three reliable conservative themes of tax reductions, limited government, and military strength. Bush mentioned all three, but more significant were the three other areas he singled out: education, Social Security, and Medicare. For not only are these issues on which Republicans have seemed tongue-tied, they are also, according to a decade’s worth of polling, issues on which voters consistently regard Democrats as more trustworthy.

But poll questions about trust, relying as they do on the fuzzy perceptions that respondents already have of political parties, can be misleading. It turns out that questions about specific proposals often elicit quite different answers. On education, for example, the main components of Bush’s approach—national testing standards, greater flexibility for teachers and local education authorities—are exactly what centrist voters, of the stripe the Democratic Leadership Council would most like to attract, are looking for. Even on the contentious issue of education vouchers, a survey of opinion research by Gallup has formed no clear consensus, but certainly no overwhelming opposition. Indeed, according to Gallup, support for a federal voucher program grows considerably when it is cast in terms of giving parents a choice, providing only partial tuition, and allowing children to attend religious (as opposed to “private”) schools—all features of the Bush proposal.

Similarly with Social Security. Some 60 percent of Americans now favor a plan like the one put forward by candidate Bush, in which employees would allocate a portion of their payroll tax to a private account. As might be expected, seniors are the one group of Americans wary of this idea—and yet Bush still managed to win the senior vote in Florida.

Similarly again with Medicare. Polls last year showed the public trusting President Clinton far more than the Republicans on how to fix the troubled program. Yet nearly two-thirds of respondents to a poll conducted last November said they were strongly or somewhat in favor of reforming Medicare by giving federal funds to the states to provide prescription-drug coverage for seniors and by offering beneficiaries a choice of health plans: once again, the main components of Bush’s proposal.

All these initiatives have a consistent and appealing theme. In each case they introduce competition, choice, and flexibility into areas once monopolized by government. They promote greater individual responsibility and private-sector initiative. And because they rely on market forces more than on the regulation and expansion of existing entitlements, they promise to bring a greater degree of innovation and efficiency to vast areas of federal spending.

Efficiency, flexibility, and the encouragement of private initiative are also hallmarks of Bush’s approach to helping the needy; but they are not the only hallmarks. In the past, Republican policy has largely stressed reforming federal poverty programs by removing perverse financial incentives and shifting responsibility to local authorities. To these much-needed steps, Bush has added his own “compassionate” twist. His decision to create a White House office to explore how faith-based groups that operate social and antipoverty programs can receive federal funds has triggered unsurprising opposition from civil libertarians. But as others, including some liberals, have rightly commented, Bush’s willingness to incur political risks by advancing a novel approach toward the poor is the best evidence that he cannot be easily dismissed as a Republican interested in reform only to the extent that it helps pay for tax cuts.

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And that brings us to the subject of compassionate conservatism as politics. Throughout the presidential campaign, Al Gore demonized his Republican opponent by raising the specter of “privatizing” Social Security or of replacing our public schools with voucher-supported “private” schools. Clearly, the Democrats had studied the same polling data as the Republicans, and chose words to frighten voters who might otherwise be disposed to give Bush a hearing. But in so doing, they revealed their own inflexibility, and in a way that may come back to haunt them.

Bill Clinton left office insisting that the “dynamic center” of American politics belonged to the Democratic party. In fact, however, and beyond the “knowledge workers,” Al Gore’s support depended heavily on a very Old-Democratic coalition of minorities, urban liberals, single women, and union members. Playing to their preferences, Gore’s campaign barely even mentioned such New Democrat victories of the last eight years as NAFTA, the balanced budget, or the once-celebrated AmeriCorps. At a post-election retreat of Democratic strategists, the pollster Mark J. Penn said the public saw Gore as someone who “would return the party to old liberalism.”

The public is on to something. The liberalism of the Democratic party, successfully suppressed by Clinton, is now making a noisy reappearance in Washington. The renewed prominence of the Democrats’ leading liberals during Attorney General John Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings; the more strident tone being adopted by the AFL-CIO and other liberal activist groups; the presence of more left-leaning Democrats in Congress’s freshman class, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Jon Corzine—all this suggests that the era of the New Democrats may turn out to have been a more transient phenomenon than once predicted.

If so, it is another piece of good news for Bush and the Republicans. For how long will voters abide Democratic leaders who remain steadfastly against any use of private accounts for Social Security? How supportive will the public be of Democratic insistence on opposing the use of school vouchers in every case, even for the poorest children? Should the left wing of the party stick to its guns, and should Bush succeed in winning over some centrist Democrats and independents, he may well end up moving these traditionally “Democratic” issues onto the Republican side.

And that, combined with other trends, could prove a turning point for his party. For decades, Republicans have failed to persuade the public of the virtues of market-oriented reforms; ties to the old status quo have remained too strong, and too rooted in historical memory. But here is a case—despite the urban/rural split of the electoral map—where the country’s changing demographics tilt in favor of the Republicans. In the post-election memo I cited above, Al From estimated that fewer than 10 percent of voters in 2000 were old enough to remember the era of the New Deal. In the minds of future voters, this landmark period of liberal government activism, of large federal programs with centralized planning committees and expansive budgets, will inevitably resonate more dimly still.

Other demographic factors may likewise augur well for Republicans. In educational achievement, the largest bloc in the 2000 election comprised voters reporting “some college.” As Karlyn Bowman points out, this is a critical group. Some intend to go back to school; others have finished a degree from a junior college or technical school. In any case, they are ambitious and upwardly mobile—and, remarkably, they make up one out of every three voters. In 1996, they went 48-40 percent for Clinton; in November 2000, they went 51-45 for Bush.

In sum, there is reason to think that Bush may be the sort of Republican whom Democrats ought to fear the most: a credible reformer who may yet be in a position to expose the Democrats as the country’s real extremists, standing athwart changes that the public favors.

If this scenario sounds vaguely reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s notorious strategy of “triangulation,” but from the other side of the aisle, the differences are more salient than the similarities. When he set out to steal the Republicans’ thunder and then brand them as extremists, Clinton was acting out of expediency, hoping to save a badly faltering presidency; in order to execute this maneuver, furthermore, he had to abrogate much of what he had entered office pledging to accomplish. By contrast, compassionate conservatism is, for Bush, clearly a matter both of personal conviction and of fidelity to principle. Which only underlines the astuteness of his having appropriated the motif of compassion—the master theme of 50 years and more of American liberalism—and put it to work in behalf of a policy that could end, in the phrase of the great Tory statesman and strategist Benjamin Disraeli, by dishing the Whigs.

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Whether Bush can actually pull off this ambitious project of realignment is of course an open question. His greatest weakness may turn out to be his reticent and stumbling speaking style, a true defect in someone whose most important task is to communicate the case for reform. Yet, by the same token, Bush’s chief virtue is the uncomplicated nature of his approach to national politics. In a fawning review of his inaugural address in Slate, Jacob Weisberg, no friend of Republican politicians, noted that Bush’s speech

laid out an agenda that was impressive in its clarity and simplicity. The President named five things he intends to accomplish. He wants to “reclaim America’s schools,” “reform Social Security and Medicare,” “reduce taxes,” “build our defenses beyond challenge,” and “confront weapons of mass destruction.” You can disagree with these priorities, but you can’t fault Bush for not spelling them out clearly enough.

Actually, if Bush succeeds only in spelling out these challenges over the next four years, he may suffer the same fate as his father, his good intentions constantly defeated by Democratic obstinacy and poorly planned compromises. So far, there is every sign that he is determined to avoid that mistake. But—even assuming that the economy remains strong and the world situation relatively quiet—the hard part is yet to come.

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About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.




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