The GOP Still Can't Quit George W. Bush

Tech Sgt. Craig Clapper, USAF

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush give a final farewell wave to the crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered on Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to wish them a fond farewell before their final departure aboard Air Force One.

This week, George W. Bush dedicates his presidential library and re-enters public life after a long, quiet hiatus.

Not that he was missed.

Most Americans have nothing but disdain for the former president. The failures of his administration—including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis—left him with an abysmal approval rating. And as recently as six months ago, a majority of voters viewed him as responsible for the poor economy. If, as suggested by some conservative pundits, America has graded Barack Obama on a curve, it’s almost certainly because he is still dealing with the fallout from eight years of neglect, disinterest, and incompetence.

With that said, a recent Washington Post poll has Bush with 47 percent approval, giving his supporters a reason to praise the former president. Then again, an equally recent poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal shows Bush with a 35 percent favorability rating—roughly where he was when he left office. My best guess is that his approval lies between the two numbers, and that improvement is the product of his absence from the public stage. Though, as Jonathan Bernstein suggests, it’s not guaranteed. Historians won’t be kind to the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture, and Bush’s standing may fall further as they uncover and publish the details behind both.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, is in an odd place with regards to George W. Bush. Most Republicans—politicians, activists, and ordinary voters—see him as a competent, even admirable, president. According to NBC News, 65 percent of self-identified Republicans and 60 percent of conservatives have a favorable view of the former president. And if pundits like the Post’s Jennifer Rubin are any indication, Bush loyalists have dispensed with the idea that there’s anything to criticize about his administration.

The situation is different for elected Republicans. Since Bush is extremely unpopular, they can’t identify with him or his policies, lest they open themselves to further attacks. I’d even say that the last four years of reflexive opposition to Obama is part conscious strategy, and part an attempt to deal with the lack of an agenda distinct from Bush.

Even still, key parts of the his program—upper income tax cuts, an aggressive foreign policy—remain cornerstones of the national Republican agenda. And arguably, they’re the only part of the Republican agenda—at least, the only one discussed. They defined the campaign platform of last year’s GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, and continue to influence the priorities of Republican lawmakers in Congress. The current push for comprehensive immigration reform is pulled from the Bush playbook—the plan on hand is a variation of the one raised in 2006. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has close ties to Jeb Bush, who in turn, is widely hailed as a strong contender for the 2016 Republican nomination.

The fact of the matter is that this is a recipe for failure. The GOP’s losing streak, from the 2006 wave election to Obama’s re-election victory in 2012 (with a brief respite in 2010), has everything to do with George W. Bush, and Iraq in particular. It’s what gave Democrats the House and the Senate in 2006, and it’s a large part of what gave Barack Obama the presidency in 2008. And for as much as election fundamentals could predict the outcome of last year’s election, it’s also true that Democrats got a lot of traction out of tying Republicans to the “failures of the past.” Americans still remember the Bush years, and as long as Republicans are committed to same policies, they’ll still hesitate to give them the reins of state.

Indeed, the GOP will need to come to grips with the fact that the Bush years were formative for a whole generation of voters, i.e. “Millennials." Political identities are heavily shaped by events, but once formed, they’re highly stable. These voters, who started voting in 2004 and 2008, became huge critics of Bush and the Republican Party, and gave overwhelming support to Obama in 2008 and 2012, and will almost certainly do the same for future Democratic candidates.

The 80 million or so twentysomethings who comprise the Millennial generation is as large, if not larger, than the Baby Boomers. And in all likelihood, they will be voting against George W. Bush for the rest of their lives.