The party cannot chart a course to future victory until it makes peace with past failures
It's still freezing in much of country, but it's springtime for Republican intellectuals.
With the Romney debacle behind them, a number of analysts have gone public with accounts of the party's failures and ambitious proposals for its reform. Over the last few weeks, Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethothoukis, David Frum, and Tod Lindberg have all weighed in on where the GOP should go.
The proposals include promising ideas, such as emphasizing tax and regulatory simplification over income tax cuts, or moving away from hard-line positions on abortion and gay marriage. Nevertheless, these plans are a misleading point of departure for GOP renewal. That's because their authors remain in denial about the cause of Republicans' unpopularity: the catastrophic failure of the Bush presidency.
Start with foreign policy. From the 1960s until the 21st century, Republicans reliably enjoyed the trust of the public to manage America's foreign affairs and protect its national security. The attacks of September 11 gave George W. Bush the opportunity to build on that reputation. Instead, he squandered it by mismanaging the war in Afghanistan and plunging the nation into a disaster in Iraq.
Not every setback was Bush's fault. Nevertheless, the president bears more personal responsibility for foreign policy than any other issue. In most Americans' minds, then, Afghanistan and Iraq were Bush's wars. By the conventional logic of politics, that means that they are Republican wars, too.
Yet Republican reformers are reluctant to admit the obstacle that Bush's legacy poses to public confidence on foreign affairs. Although they acknowledge that the wars have been unpopular and expensive, they present these facts in the passive voice, as if the deaths of nearly 7,000 Americans were the result of weather or other uncontrollable forces. Here is how Gerson and Wehner describe the loss of the GOP's foreign policy advantage: "Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans' electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case." Who do they think they're fooling?
Then there's the economy. The reformers write eloquently, and correctly, of the need for Republican responses to long-term problems of unemployment, wage stagnation, and rising health-care and education costs. As with foreign policy, however, they are reluctant to acknowledge that the Bush administration did little to reverse these trends, and in some ways exacerbated them. In an otherwise compelling critique of Republicans' fixation on marginal income tax rates, Ponnuru manages not to mention that the Bush administration regarded tax cuts as a signature achievement. Ordinary citizens have longer memories.
I emphasize foreign policy and the economy because these are areas of Bush's most dramatic failures. But Bush's record as an administrative centralizer and critic of Social Security also overshadows Republican efforts in education and entitlement reform. It's not good enough for Republicans to pledge that things will be different next time. To convince Americans that they're serious, reformers need to name names about the cause of the public's justifiable mistrust.
To be fair, the reformers are in a difficult position. They won't attract converts within the party if they mount a frontal assault on its idols. And they know that Bush and his policies remain popular both with Republicans in office and with many base voters.
What's more, several of the reformers have professional ties with the Bush administration. Frum, Gerson, and Wehner all worked as speechwriters in the White House. For them, rejection of the Bush legacy amounts to rejection of their own work. That's not easy for even the most rigorous thinker.
But the reformers' connections to the Bush administration reflect the GOP's larger problem: an institutional and intellectual elite dominated by alumni or associates of the Bush administration. As Robert Draper reported in The New York Times Magazine, the RNC committee established late last year to investigate the party's failings was staffed with the likes of Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary. Such a team is not very likely to ask tough questions — or to recognize unflattering answers. In addition to new policies, Republicans desperately need new personnel.
It takes a long time for political parties to recover from defeat. Since winning suggests that they're doing something right, it takes even longer to recover from victory. Because it reassured Republicans that aggressive war, fiscal policies that favor the rich, and the ideologically-inspired transformation of beloved domestic programs were fundamentally popular, the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 was like a drug that relieves symptoms without treating the underlying disease. Conservative intellectuals must help the GOP break its dependence on these dangerous nostrums — and its continuing allegiance to the doctor who prescribed them.
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