GOP is missing a successor to George W. Bush

By Justin Ellis

In 2002, according to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, America watched the mid-term congressional elections “making history.” Even though the Republicans gained only six seats in the House and two seats in the Senate, the election supposedly heralded the conclusion of a major partisan realignment that started with the Reagan landslide of 1980. As conventional wisdom went, President Bush’s 9/11-fueled popularity had finally rendered Democratic New Deal liberalism obsolete. And bereft of a major party leader, the Democrats reinforced this conventional wisdom in their feeble opposition to the Iraq war resolution (296-133 in the House, 77-23 in the Senate) and their crippling reluctance to challenge the President publicly.

At this point, the 2004 election seemed already decided. President Bush seemed just as invulnerable as his father had after the easy victory of Operation Desert Storm. But now, 23 months later, the president has fallen behind in three major polls (50-46 in the AP poll, 47-45 in Newsweek, 46-45 from Zogby) to his challenger, Senator John Kerry, after an embarrassing showing in the first presidential debate. Even the president’s modest leads in other polls belie the fact that undecided voters, especially numerous in this election, traditionally break two-to-one for the challenger. Either he must carry a large lead into the final polls, which he has not yet done, or he will lose. So what happened to the realignment? It actually looks more like a different, quieter revolution is taking place, one that will bring the Democratic party into power for years to come. Conservatism may yet become the political philosophy without a voice.

The danger for the Republicans is that they have no definite future: President Bush has certainly rallied the right, but has drawn popularity and power strictly to himself, not his party. His steadfast refusal to admit the danger of potential failure in Iraq is a move partially to maintain support in the short term leading up to this next election. He must know full well that any political gains now will come at a heavy cost for his party later. With an administration that has proved so relentlessly political, it is possible that he does not care.

But the future weakness of the Republican party cannot all be blamed on Bush: There is simply nobody left after him to take up the party mantle. Who could run in 2008? Bill Frist has lost popularity in the drudgery and contention of running the Senate. Governor Jeb Bush will be tarred, not helped, by family association. Senator John McCain and Secretary of State Colin Powell, once hugely popular, have lost credibility by letting themselves be used for political gain by the President. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a native-born American citizen. Senator Chuck Hagel has little standing upon the national political stage. And Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared his interest in a 2008 run, but any such candidacy could be nothing but a joke. Only former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or New York Governor George Pataki could form truly viable candidates. Regardless of who wins this year, what with incumbent fatigue and Bush’s growing unpopularity, the 2008 Republican candidate for president will be much weaker than Bush was in 2000.

Conservatism has also lost credibility as a unified political philosophy because of Bush’s short-term political moves. The President has increased deficit spending to a record level; he has peremptorily invaded a foreign country in order to spread democracy; and he has advocated amending the Constitution for social policy reasons instead of the experimentalism of the federalist approach. Despite his rhetoric, the president is no real successor to Reagan. Something is obviously off when the cover of the National Review asks “What Went Wrong?” A couple of attempts have been made, by David Brooks in a thoughtful and clear article in the New York Times Magazine and by Marshall Wittman’s reformist and McCain-centered “National Greatness Conservatism.” There are two strong reasons to doubt the future success of these proposals. First, neither formulation would be able to attract the evangelical social right, which forms a crucial part of the current Republican coalition. Secondly, Bush’s choice of tactics in foreign policy has subverted long-term goals into short-term political gain. The Republican party had the chance to present the war on terrorism as the Cold War of the new century; instead, the president has made it his personal war, a war whose success depends on his own popularity and political fortunes. As a result, it is hard to describe a coherent conservative foreign policy that transcends the role of its current leader.

Because of the president’s overwhelming politicization of policy, the Republican party stands to lose badly in this election and in elections to come. As a restult, the Democrats may soon hold both the Oval Office and the Senate, with a clear mandate to govern. But this coronation comes only because of the failures of the other side. Does the Democratic Party deserve this chance? Nancy Pelosi has yet to rally the House opposition, even after Gephardt was replaced for the losses in the 2002 elections. Even nationally prominent senators, such as the ones running for president and vice president, voted for both the Patriot Act and the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq. If the Democrats win in 2004 but fail to improve conditions in Iraq quickly, they will be beaten much worse in 2008.

John Kerry has signaled a new direction for the party in his campaign rhetoric through his strong internationalist and interventionist foreign policy positions and his offer of the vice presidency to John McCain. In effect, the future of the Democratic party now rests on the sincerity of its candidate. The coronation may be undeserved, but it had better be earned quickly.