Conservatives versus the GOP

By Craig Shirley
May 20, 2013

President Ronald Reagan (L), President George W. Bush (R, Top) and George H.W. Bush (R, Bottom) Reuters/Files

The hoopla over the new George W. Bush Library in Dallas, as well as some gauzy looks back penned by former aides, shows we are in the middle of “The Great Bush Revisionism.” The former president is being lauded and congratulated. But for what?

A new examination of Bushism may be helpful because the current scandals in Washington are the symptoms of too much power and too much arrogance.

The Internal Revenue Service did not target the Republican Party, which is considered part of the establishment. It targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups that were viewed as a threat to the establishment.

Americans need to be wary of revisionism at all times. They need to remember clearly how things were.

Recall the 2004 White House Correspondents Dinner. President George W. Bush showed a slide show featuring photos of himself searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The tuxedoed guests saw the president looking under sofas and other places for the missing WMDs. The Washington elite, as well as their Hollywood and Wall Street guests, laughed uproariously.

At that point, some 500 Americans had already died in Iraq. Within a year, the death toll had doubled.

It is one thing to be mistaken about war – all presidents are mistaken about something, at one point or another. But it is quite another to make fun of the reason for war, a reason that cost thousands of lives, tens of thousands of injuries, trillions of dollars and severely damage and divide America for years to come.

That was the last correspondents’ dinner I attended. Probably few of the gathered elites had ever served time in the military – though some may have served time. And it could be that few had ever sent a child off to war – as I have twice. Still, they laughed raucously at Bush’s jokes about the missing WMD.

All these years later, former First Lady Barbara Bush, with her unblinking bluntness, is the one who has it right.

In a television interview to mark the Bush Library opening, she said that when it comes to future presidents of the United States, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”  She was including her son, Jeb, the former Florida governor, who is now considered a likely GOP candidate.

Yet aides to former President George W. Bush now desperately attempt to reinvent and revive his name and legacy – and, in doing so, revive and reinvent themselves. Their boss may have left the White House with poll numbers in the tank, but they left with their tails between their legs.

Some, such as Ken Mark Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman who came out of the closet to lobby for gay marriage, have written thin pieces arguing for a restitution of Bushism. Mehlman conveniently forgets that it was Bush who first proposed a federal marriage amendment – a major volley in the culture  war between gays and the GOP. Other Bushies have embedded themselves in various media outlets – using their perches to sing the song of Bushism.

Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist and blogger, has urged fellow establishment Republicans to reject Reaganism, presumably supplanting it with Bushism.

Although the neo-conservative assault on Reaganism in the name of reinventing Bushism is unending, it would be useful to review the state of the GOP after the Reagan presidency and Bush presidencies.

The United States that Ronald Reagan inherited in 1980 had lost its standing on the world stage – confronting troubles ranging from the Iranian hostage crisis to severe domestic economic woes. The Soviets were winning the Cold War. The “shining city” looked more like dystopia.

When Reagan left office nine years later, the situation was radically different. Household income had increased for Americans of all races. The deficit was falling rapidly and federal non-defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product had shrunk dramatically. Gasoline prices were at historic lows, as were inflation and interest rates. Unemployment was 5.2 percent.

Reagan’s overall approval rating was 68 percent. It was 73 percent among whites, 40 percent among African Americans and an astonishing 85 percent among voters under age 30. For the first time in many decades, more young voters were registering as Republicans than Democrats, and by a respectable margin – 40 percent to 33 percent.

Soviet communism was on its way to the “ash heap of history,” where Reagan had consigned it. Reagan had used his eight years in the White House to demonstrate that intellectual conservatism was a viable reality.

Reagan helped to reinvent the Republican Party as a vibrant conservative movement of cheerful ideas, organized around the president’s philosophy of less government and more freedom.

Of course, the Reagan years were not all sweetness and light. There was a biting recession he’d inherited, the assassination attempt, the Iran-Contra scandal, the growing AIDs crisis and struggles with the Democratic left. As well as a titanic battle against Soviet communism.

But in 1989, Reagan left his country, his party and conservatives in better shape than he found them. He rarely nationalized social issues, viewing these matters as best decided by the states. But he added a framework provided by his history of standing up to bigotry and for the private rights of citizens.

That’s what Reagan handed off to his successor, when George H.W. Bush took the keys to the White House in 1989.

All Bush had to do was follow the path Reagan had set for him.

Instead, Bush followed a “kinder and gentler” route – which had troublesome implications. He turned his back on Tiananmen Square as the Chinese Communist regime sent tanks to gun down young protesters for democracy. He turned his back on social conservatives, who marched into the culture wars ignited, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts funding artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. And he turned his back on his pledge not to raise taxes, sparking a civil war inside the GOP.

Conservatives said Bush Republicans had “swallowed the anchor.” They abandoned the adventurous high seas of Reaganism for the calm, unthreatening status quo port of Bushism.

Bush’s actions led to a nervous breakdown inside the GOP. He left office with an approval rating in the low 30s after one failed term.

For Reagan Republicans, Bush’s 1992 loss to Bill Clinton was a good thing. The backlash against Clinton’s policies enabled conservatism to stage a comeback. Led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America, the conservative movement swept into Congress in 1994, and the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. These off-year elections had pitted conservatism against the Clintons’ vision of big government.

When Texas Governor George W. Bush updated “’kinder and gentler” to “compassionate conservatism” – and persuaded a minority of Americans to support him in 2000 – he did not make his father’s mistake of going to war with conservatives. In fact, Bush claimed the Reagan mantle. It was Reagan, and not George H.W. Bush, whom the younger Bush often cited. But he did not continue his strongly conservative legacy.

Although many viewed any Bush White House initiative as some form of conservatism – even if, like “No Child Left Behind,” it violated fundamental tenants of federalism – this was not how movement conservatives saw it. For them, the Bush Brigades trampled on true Reaganism.

By 2006, George W. Bush had pushed the conservative movement into another crack-up. He left office in 2009 with an approval rating perhaps equal to the number of Bush family members ‑ and the economy and the world in shambles.

The conservative movement has never fully recovered from the failings of George H. W. Bush. In fact, it is only the Tea Party has revived it. Meanwhile, many weary Reagan conservatives wish the Bush Establishment GOP would just admit its failures and accept defeat.

Now, though, with Bush Revisionism in full flower, the Republican Party and the conservative movement must again have the debate about the establishment versus intellectual conservativism.

Once again, the movement conservatives and the Tea Party will have to slug it out with the GOP establishment.

As Dorothy Parker observed, what fresh hell is this?


PHOTO (Insert A) President Barack Obama (L) stands beside (L-R) former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter at the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert B): President George W. Bush laughs at the start of the 60th annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, March 24, 2004. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert C): Tea Party stickers are displayed in the exhibition hall at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque



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