Bushism Bringing Down the GOP

US News has helped publicize Russ Douthat’s warnings in the current issue of The Atlantic that “Bushism” is bringing down the GOP and could serioiusly hurt the party’s candidates in the 2008 elections. Douthat defines Bushism as “social conservatism and an accommodation with big government at home, and a moralistic interventionism abroad.” While these views are unpopular with a majority of voters, they are being embraced by the major 2008 candidates for the GOP nomination:

The various ingredients of “Bushism,” it’s been argued, have alienated fiscal hawks and foreign-policy realists, Catholics and libertarians—in short, everyone but the party’s evangelical base.

But someone must have forgotten to tell the GOP presidential field. If you consider how the nation’s most ambitious Republicans are positioning themselves for 2008, Bushism looks like it could have surprising staying power.

All of the prominent candidates, for instance, champion fiscal restraint, but none are likely to revive the small-government conservatism that Bush deliberately abandoned. John McCain may be a vehement foe of pork, but on issues ranging from campaign finance to education, he has shown little aversion to expanding the scope of federal power. Mitt Romney is best known for having delivered universal health care to Massachusetts, the bluest state in the union. And Sam Brownback has supported nearly every one of Bush’s big-government gambits, from the faith-based initiative to the costly prescription-drug entitlement. Newt Gingrich might seem a plausible advocate for small government—except that his recent manifesto, Winning the Future, includes more spending proposals than specific budget cuts.

The Bush-imitating pattern also holds in foreign policy. McCain talks tougher than Bush about Iran; Gingrich waxes eloquent about a third world war; Rudy Giuliani takes a maximalist view of the war on terrorism, casting it as a decades-long struggle that dates to Munich in 1972. Save for Brownback, all of the major contenders backed Bush’s call for a “surge” of troops into Iraq—and Brownback has been more aggressive and moralistic than Bush on humanitarian issues like Darfur.

And although Brownback is the only candidate in the field so far with Bush’s personal connection to the party’s religious conservatives, everyone—even McCain, even Giuliani—is actively courting them. This is partly because without evangelical Christians, there would essentially be no Republican Party anymore: Evangelicals provided more votes to the Republicans in last year’s midterms than African Americans and union members combined gave to the Democrats. Their influence within the party more or less requires that primary candidates endorse Bush-style moralism, not only on gay marriage and abortion but in foreign policy as well—which means continued support for Israel, a continued drift toward confrontation with Iran, and further ventures in conservative humanitarianism, along the lines of Bush’s AIDS-in-Africa initiative.

But the Republican candidates have another reason for giving Bushism a second act: It has more potential to appeal to the broad electorate than other visions of where the GOP should go from here. The enduring popularity of the welfare state makes big-government conservatism far more palatable to voters than the government-cutting purism that Bush’s right-wing critics hope to revive. (In the long run, the country may be forced to choose between keeping spending high and keeping taxes low; in the short term, though, the deficits Bush has run up are not the public’s first priority.) Similarly, although the Iraq War is likely to be an albatross for the Republican Party for years to come, the rest of Bush’s national-security vision—from opposing Iran to pushing domestic measures like the patriot Act—could still command widespread support.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    cadmium says:

    Republicans appear to try to distance themselves from Bush to avoid the guilt by association but it appears more difficult than I would have thought. At some level they appear intimidated.

    I also heard recently that Jeb Bush’s people are lining up to support Romney.

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