Tuesday, January 08, 2008
The End of Reaganism, or, Three Cheers for the Great Destroyer
All of the presidential candidates seem to be picking up Barack Obama's theme of change and portraying themselves as agents of change. If things keep going the way they have been, the 2008 election now looks to be as defining a moment as 1932, 1968 or 1980. (If things keep going, that is. A lot can happen in ten months).
If 2008 turns out to be a pivotal election, defining a new political era, it is important to give credit where credit is due. Two key reasons for the change will be the crackup of the coalition of the dominant party of the era, the Republicans, and the almost complete political failure of George W. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. Let me begin with the second reason, and then move to the first.
The Bush/Rove strategy of accentuating divisions along partisan lines was a bold gamble that ultimately failed, because it depended on the Bush presidency being successful. Think of it this way: If Bush does well at his task, then people at the margins gravitate toward the winning side and the Republican coalition slowly expands over time, rejuvenating the party and producing a post-Reagan vision (organized, for example, around the War on Terror and the opportunity society) that extends well into the future. But if Bush does badly, or as it turned out, very badly, the same strategy that encourages increased partisanship and divisiveness will tend to make Americans believe that these features of political life are also the cause of political failure. They will seek both change and a sense of unity. This is precisely what Obama has tapped into, which is why he has been successful so far. Obama, if you will, is what Bush's strategy has produced.
Now add to this the President's remarkable intransigence in the face of his policy failures and his growing unpopularity since 2005. President Bush has never been more sure of himself (at least in public) than he is today, and, with the aid of his Republican allies in Congress, he has been successful in batting back almost everything the Democratic Congress has sought to do. The result makes politics appear even more hopeless than it actually is, and this only spurs on the public's desire for change and for unity. (And this sense of hopelessness, too, is what Obama has made use of in his rhetoric-- by turning it upside down. His message is that there is hope because we are and should be united, not divided.) Bush's intransigence has heightened the problems his policy failures have created, opening a path for someone like Obama, whether on the Democratic or Republican side.
That would not necessarily be such a bad thing for the Republicans. It all depends on what they have to offer as an alternative to Bush. The problem is that Bush has also overseen the cracking of Ronald Reagan's successful coalition of southern former Democrats, white working class ethnics, defense hawks, free market conservatives, and religious conservatives. Reagan could appeal to all of these elements of the party, but Bush's Presidency has been unable to keep all of them happy. Had Bush's war on terror (including the Iraq war) been successful, he might have kept most of the coalition together even though he simultaneously increased the size of government, downplayed coded racial appeals that brought in the South, supported immigration reform, ran up large deficits, and offered only modest and symbolic achievements to religious conservatives. But his policy failures made this impossible.
Bush's failed presidency has left the Republicans scrambling to reconstitute the Reagan coalition. The wide range of different candidates-- from Giuliani to Romney to McCain to Huckabee to Paul-- offer different solutions. We don't yet know how the coalition will be reassembled, and under whose leadership. However, as of the day of the New Hampshire primary, it looks like putting it back together will be a tall order. And although the eventual nominee will try to assume the mantle of Ronald Reagan-- and, equally important, not the mantle of George W. Bush-- the Republican party will have been changed forever by the events of the last eight years.
Although Ronald Reagan will still be regarded with fondness by the Republicans for generations to come, George W. Bush will have effectively destroyed Reaganism. The Republicans will have to start over with a different mix of concerns, agendas and appeals. This is George W. Bush's single greatest achievement. This is one reason, although not the only reason, why he ranks high (or low) among the country's failed presidents-- not only did his policies fail, but he also took the winning coalition that brought him into office down with him.
And that is why, if, like many Americans, you think that change is coming, and you think that this is a good thing, you should tip your hat to George W. Bush and his eventful presidency. For if Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, George W. Bush is the Great Destroyer of Coalitions.