The Long Shadow of George W. Bush

At this point, there’s wide agreement that the GOP faces a profound demographic problem—its longtime coalition of middle-aged whites is not enough to win national elections. Rush Limbaugh’s lament is correct: Republicans are (increasingly) outnumbered. President Barack Obama won the overwhelming majority of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos; overall, his nonwhite share of the electorate was larger than any winning presidential candidate in history, and it contributed to his wins in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada.

It’s easy to focus on these demographic problems as the core challenge facing the GOP, but in reality, they’re only part of the problem. The larger issue—by far—is the extent to which Republicans have yet to reckon with the failures of the Bush years. Not one of the GOP candidates for president this year—including Mitt Romney—made a significant break with Bushism. Each, especially Romney, doubled down on the Bush agenda of belligerence abroad and fiscal profligacy at home.

To put this in the form of a question, was there any area where Romney made a significant break with Bush? On domestic policy, his five-point plan was a combination of massive Bush-style tax cuts, deregulation, drilling for oil, and cuts to social services. On foreign policy, he adopted the aggression of Bush’s first term, with saber rattling toward Iran and promises to intervene wherever there was toil, including Syria, where he pledged to “arm the rebels.” Indeed, his key advisers were early advocates for the Iraq War, the greatest foreign-policy blunder since the war in Vietnam. There was no indication from the Romney campaign that George W. Bush had made mistakes. No sign that they saw a problem with Bush’s economic policies, and no awareness that voters no longer trusted the Republican Party on national security. Mitt Romney promised a change, but what he offered was a restoration and a return to the failed policies of the previous administration.

The Bush years were bad for most Americans, but they were absolutely terrible for African Americans and Latinos, who saw a decade of stagnant wages, capped off by an economic collapse that disproportionately harmed their communities. At the same time, the sluggish recovery has not been good for them—in terms of employment and income, they are well behind the rest of the country. Mitt Romney had an opening, if he and the Republican Party had policies that addressed the profound economic insecurity of millions of Americans, he could have made inroads.

Yes, as stalwart Democrats, the large majority of African Americans were likely to vote for Barack Obama, and yes, Romney’s rhetoric on immigration would have kept him at a distinct disadvantage with Latino voters. But Obama’s 50-point margin with Asian Americans and Latinos wasn’t guaranteed, and Romney could have narrowed that gap with a substantive commitment to policies that would have helped these groups. Instead, he—and the Republican Party—promised to repeal health-care reform, promised to cut popular social programs, and promised to direct those savings toward new tax cuts for the “job creators.” If Romney offered little for working- and middle-class white Americans, he offered even less for working- and middle-class communities of color.

At the moment, conservatives are united in blaming the messenger for their defeat. To a certain extent, that’s true; a Mitt Romney who didn’t endorse “self-deportation” and didn’t pal around with racist conspiracy mongers (see: Donald Trump) might have had better luck with nonwhites. But given it’s commitment to Bush economic and national-security policies, the GOP’s messaging problem seems like an artifact of its substantive policy problem. Republicans have nothing to offer to ordinary people, and in the absence of a positive agenda, they have to rely on petty resentments to win voters. This problem goes beyond the presidential race; for the second cycle in a row, Republicans lost their shot at winning the Senate. While some of this can be blamed on Tea Party candidates in Missouri and Indiana, the bulk of it has to do with a voting public—across the country—that doesn’t trust the Republican Party with power.

If conservatives have a task for the next four years, it’s to build a responsive conservatism that is attuned to conditions in the real world, seeks to solve problems, and tries to meet voters where they’re at with policies that have relevance for their lives. Republicans don’t have to become liberals—there is a whole generation of conservative wonks, thinkers, and politicians who are trying to forge a more constructive conservatism—but they do have to acknowledge and reckon with their failures.

The downside to all of this is a little time in the wilderness, the upside—as Democrats can tell you—is a stronger, more capable party. Put another way, the failures of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis eventually gave way to the successes of Bill Clinton and—you know—Barack Obama.

Comments

Holy freakin’ arrogance. Umm, the popular vote was nearly split down the middle, 50% BO to 49% MR at last count. And, Barrack, as the incumbent, just got 10 million FEWER votes than he did last time around. If I were you, that might concern me more than the health of your opposition party, Mr. Bouie. But even more so, I would be concerned by the fact that Gary Johnson (the Libertarian candidate) received over twice the votes as Libertarians did last election; and all this during an election where millions of Americans “sat out”. 13 million less voters, folks…a small fact overlooked by every pundit (proof, you want?...10 million less votes for the dem candidate, 3 million less for the repub). The fake enthusiasm of the press will prove to be just that – watch. Getting the picture? It doesn’t bode any better for you, since your guy was the incumbent and did so poorly. So, you could choose to do the math and then take your own advice...but I suspect that what you’ll choose is to not let the facts get in the way of your argument, instead. And don’t get me wrong…it’s not that we don’t appreciate the constructive criticism from you, the experts...thank you!

The GOP may be eroding, but like an injured crocodile, it can still bite. Liberals need to take a page from the "moral majority" playbook of the 1970's, and rather than assuming that "inertia" will continue the leftward swing (after all, Latinos are primarily Catholic, and those who have left the Catholic church primarily became evangelical; a more Latino-friendly GOP could appeal to them), we need to begin a CONTINUOUS program of explaining to the more reasonable conservatives we know WHY liberal values, CORRECTLY understood, are not antithetical to core conservative values.

Since so much of what conservatives want is based on religious teachings, yet people of faith include liberals also, we need to revitalize liberal churches, synagogues, mosques and temples (and for those with the stomach for it, "infiltrate" the conservative ones and work to change them from within).

Despite what right-wing religious people say, liberals do not want to PROMOTE "sin", only to leave that to PERSONAL decisions, whether it is drug use, sexual behavior, marriage, gay rights, etc. Not to say that religions may not teach what THEIR people ought to do, but that they are not the ultimate LEGAL authorities. Also, conservatives need to be reminded that spiritual leaders and prophets have always taught that "sinners" are to be LOVED, not punished.

On health care, the liberal idea is not the right wing caricature of "giving away freebies to deadbeats" but insuring access to the tools of good health (both prevention AND intervention when needed) to everyone regardless of their income. This is a humanitarian value shared by all religions. If the concern is overuse, the experience of other nations can be examined; for all but a very few people, medical procedures are painful enough to avoid regardless of cost.

On the question of communal vs individual disaster preparations, the Bible tells us of Joseph, appointed by Pharaoh to head a FEMA program, taxing and stockpiling grain during times of plenty to feed the population during times of famine; except for his knowing exactly when the good times and bad times were coming, he had the same problem as today's disaster managers. And during the good times, many farmers surely resented the taxes, especially since Joseph was "not a native Egyptian."

On labor-management relations, liberals feel there should be a balance; conservatives seem to want to give management ABSOLUTE power over workers (and customers, via monopolies). There is no RELIGIOUS support for this selfishness; in fact, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Catholic tradition, post-Christian Jewish tradition, Muslim tradition, and all other religious traditions teach the opposite, that God is on the side of the powerless, and the powerful are OBLIGATED to share, both individually and as representatives of the overall society.

There has been a conservative backlash against the contraceptive provisions of the new health care law (Obamacare), citing First Amendment rights of EMPLOYERS not to allow EMPLOYEES, whether sharing the employer's religion or not, benefits (contraceptive care and abortion) that violate the EMPLOYER'S faith. The problem is that ANY faith can have certain medical procedures to which it objects, and not always the obvious ones. For example, patients on an employer based plan may need a heart valve, and the best one for that patient may be from a pig; if the EMPLOYER is Jewish or Muslim, should that employer be able to veto the pig valve? Or an employer who belongs to the Jehovah's Witness faith, which forbids transfusions; can this employer tell those who work for him that, should they suffer a grave injury or a disease requiring new blood, they will have to do without that life saving treatment, even if they follow ANOTHER religion? Liberals believe that religious freedom is INDIVIDUAL, not CORPORATE or INSTITUTIONAL.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, in "The Left Hand of God", points out that in every society with a strong religious base, and especially in modern America, there is an emphasis on the punitive, often violent aspects of religious teaching, which he calls the Right Hand of God, and a neglect of the gentler teachings of community responsibility, or the Left Hand of God. George W. Bush and other conservatives have taken the Right Hand to an extreme. Only the people in the pews can change this attitude.

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