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.
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