George W. Bush, who united almost all Republicans during most of his time in national politics, now divides them. Most Republicans view his presidency favorably, and cheer his recent rise in the public’s esteem.
A vocal group of conservatives, though, thinks of the Bush presidency as a wrong turn – a turn toward big government that the party needs to repudiate.
The dedication of Bush’s presidential library last week reheated this long-simmering debate, which the party is no closer to settling than it was when Bush left office in January 2009.
Veterans of the Bush administration shouldn’t get carried away celebrating his recovery in the polls. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has been asking people for years which party they trust most to handle various issues. It shows that voters trust Republicans less on taxes, the economy, controlling spending and reducing the deficit than they did before Bush became the leader of the Republican Party.
The only issue on which Republicans do better than they did in the late 1990s is health care, and that improvement is entirely because of the debate over President Barack Obama’s health care plan.
Bush’s critics forget something, too: The Republican Party was already in poor shape when he 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.
So it isn’t surprising the federal government expanded on Bush’s watch. Bush clearly hoped, though, that his presidency would turn the country more conservative. The people would reward Republicans for governing successfully, he thought. Americans would become more free-market-oriented as a restructured Social Security made them more self-reliant. An influx of Hispanics would join the conservative coalition after he reformed immigration. And so on.
By midway through Bush’s second term, it was clear his 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. 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 in 2012, as in 1996, wanted Republicans to stand for more than hostility to government before they would trust the party with a governing majority.
They were especially suspicious of granting such power to Republicans, given their dismal record in office under Bush. The public doesn’t primarily see Bush’s failure the way conservatives do: as a matter of overspending. Republicans turned on Bush’s spending but never reckoned with the Iraq debacle or the middle-class stagnation of the past decade. They didn’t even do much to offer an alternative to the Democratic narrative about the origin of the economic crisis.
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.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.