Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Republican Party Can No Longer Blame Bush

Okay, I'm really turning that line back on the political right, specifically those factions that have tried to turn the War in Afghanistan into "Obama's War" and the slow economic recovery resulting from the Bush-era economic collapse into "Obama's economy". No doubt, memories of Bush did play a role in holding some voters in the Democratic column where they might otherwise have supported a Republican contender.

Nonetheless, when I read something like this, I think it's fair to say that it was the Republican Party that lost this election, not Bush. It is fair to say that Bush caused damage and that the Republican Party has not recovered from that damage, but I don't think that damage rises to the level that it either cost the party this election or, with more responsible leadership, would have remained a significant issue four years out.
But in reality the more pressing problem is that Republicans are still a party badly damaged by the George W. Bush years. The GOP has traditionally held huge advantages on foreign policy and the economy. That advantage is gone now. And Mitt Romney was the wrong candidate to give the party a refresh on those issues, particularly when the gettable voters were downscale whites. It isn’t that Republicans aren’t reaching enough voters; voters simply don’t believe the GOP is competent to govern.
The Republican Party has long held undeserved advantages on... I think it's more fair to call it "the military" as opposed to foreign policy, and on the economy. Past Republican Presidents did a good job portraying the Democratic Party as "tax and spend", while running up record deficits. They did a good job portraying the Democratic Party as "weak", while committing the U.S. to foreign military escapades that were of questionable value to national security, with sometimes disastrous results. Bush didn't depart from that formula - he simply kicked it up a notch.

But that's still not why the Republican Party lost. The Republican Party lost because it chose to nominate Mitt Romney. I'm certainly not convinced that any of the other declared candidates would have won, at least once the few who displayed any signs of "paleoconservatism" were drummed out of the pool, but let's recall a few things: Bush dreamed of an ethnically inclusive Republican Party. When he ran for office he favored immigration reform, albeit of a somewhat watered down nature. Senator John McCain was a champion of the DREAM Act. John McCain responded to anti-immigrant sentiments in his party by abandoning any support for immigration reform. Mitt Romney predictably tried to come down on multiple sides of the issue, but was not credible. And the Republican Party lost votes as a result - vote losses that cannot be blamed on Bush.

You want a party that is credible on foreign / military policy? Even though he chose to endorse President Obama, Colin Powell is still a Republican. No, I'm not saying run Powell, and I'm well aware of the positions taken by his critics, but I am saying that there are Republicans that continue to have credibility with the public. It was not the Democratic Party that chose to marginalize that faction of the Republican Party.
Obama did not really propose anything new on the economy or foreign policy fronts, but he did make contraception, rape, and Roe v. Wade a large part of this campaign. He constantly portrayed Romney as a man with “the social policies of the 1950s.” Apparently this worked.
I'm sure it played a role in President Obama's advantage among women, but again that's not something you can pin on Bush. G.W. ran as an unapologetically pro-life candidate, and implemented a lot of policies that made the pro-choice crowd angry, but he knew where to draw the line. He didn't come across as the type who wanted to ban contraception or who would make crackpot statements on sexual assault, and I don't think he would have left any ambiguity about where he stood on those issues. Romney tried to dance around the issues, and I doubt that anybody was left satisfied - the social conservatives he was attempting to appease, or the women who questioned whether he would stand up even for their right to access contraception.

The "back to the 1950's" issues, let's recall, arose in no small part from the statements of Tea Party candidates. In many ways the Tea Party is a reinvention of a certain bloc of Republican voters, but it was the Republican establishment and right-wing media that chose to amplify their voice and power. That helped the Republicans gain seats in 2010, but appears to have contributed to their loss in 2012. It definitely contributed to some of the Democratic victories in the Senate.

So let's say this: Right now it is fair to say that the economy is struggling back from collapse, and that the present economic conditions are in significant part an echo of the Bush Administration's mistakes, but that it would have been at least theoretically possible to have a more robust recovery had the President advanced (and if the Republicans would have allowed) certain recovery measures that were not tried, or were not strengthened when they proved inadequate. Right now it is fair to say that the echo of G.W. Bush played a role in why the public is suspicious of the Republican Party on foreign / military policy and economic issues, and probably contributed to the line-up of candidates from which Mitt Romney was deemed "the most electable".

But from this point forward, it's ownership time. It's Obama's job to keep the nation on a path to recovery. It's the Republican Party's job to find a candidate who is credible on foreign policy and economic issues. (As was obvious some months ago, Jeb Bush was already seeing the handwriting on the wall and has long been positioning himself to be that candidate four years from now.) Acknowledge his actual contribution if appropriate, but from this point forward the only politician who is entitled to say "It's G.W.'s fault" is Jeb, if he cannot get his own quest to be President back on track.

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