How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party
A president driven by ideology. A Congress rife with corruption. A political party hellbent on a "permanent majority." A leading scholar examines the radicals who hijacked the GOP — and wrecked the longest conservative ascendancy in American history
By SEAN WILENTZ
The failure of the administration of George W. Bush — and the accompanying crisis of the Republican Party — has caused a political meltdown of historic proportions. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bush enjoyed the greatest popularity ever recorded for a modern American president. Republicans on Capitol Hill, under the iron rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, fattened their coffers through a fearsome operation overseen by corporate lobbyists and GOP henchmen that functioned more like an empire than an old-fashioned political machine. "Republican hegemony," the prominent conservative commentator Fred Barnes rejoiced in 2004, "is now expected to last for years, maybe decades."
Now, only four years later, Bush is leaving office with the longest sustained period of public disapproval ever recorded. No president, at least in modern times — and certainly no two-term president — has risen so high only to fall so low. Indeed, Bush's standings in the polls describe one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the American presidency — second only, perhaps, to that of Richard Nixon, the only president ever forced to resign from office. And in Congress, the indictment and downfall of DeLay and a host of associated scandals involving, among others, the Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, have badly damaged the party's image. The supremacy of the GOP, once envisioned by party operatives as a "permanent majority," may be gone for a very long time to come.
At first glance, the collapse of the Republican Party seems rapid and unexpected. When viewed within the larger context of American history, however, the party's breakdown looks familiar, even predictable. As in earlier party crackups — 1854, 1932, 1968 — the demise has involved not a single, sudden explosion but a gradual unraveling followed by a sharp and rapid deterioration amid major national calamities. If Bush and the Republican majority in Congress accelerated the demise of Ronald Reagan's political era with their assault on traditional American values and institutions — including the rule of law itself — it is a decline that began two decades ago.
A few examples serve to place recent events in historical perspective. In 1848, the Whig Party, which had emerged more than a decade earlier to oppose the Democrats of Andrew Jackson, captured the presidency for the second time in its history and consolidated what looked like a formidable, nationwide political base. Yet differences over slavery and territorial expansion had always hampered party unity, and in 1854, amid the sectional warfare caused by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the Whigs ceased to be a national force, replaced by the anti-slavery Republican Party as the nation lurched toward the Civil War.
Three generations later, in 1928, the Republicans, although the dominant party, were battered by scandals and old battles between conservative party regulars and self-styled progressives. GOP power brokers wisely chose as their presidential nominee Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose engineering projects and disaster-relief efforts had earned admiration across party lines. Hoover crushed his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, in what looked like the culmination of the party's growth since the Civil War. Four years later, though, following the stock-market crash of October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the Republicans went to pieces — and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after burying Hoover in a landslide, inaugurated the New Deal.
In 1964, the Texas liberal Democrat Lyndon Johnson wiped out the right-wing hero Barry Goldwater and ushered in a true working majority of Democratic reformers in Congress. Political commentators hailed a second birth of New Deal liberalism, and some experts even wondered if the Republicans would soon go the way of the Whigs. Yet the Democrats had long been battling among themselves over civil rights issues, and Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 triggered the defection of the once solidly Democratic South. A mere four years after Johnson's outsize triumph, Democratic infighting over his escalation of the war in Vietnam, as well as over racial turmoil in the nation's cities, paved the way for Richard Nixon's election. The breakdown of the Democrats, coupled with Nixon's downfall in 1974 in the Watergate scandal, blew the ideological center out of American politics and cleared the way for the conservative age of Ronald Reagan — the age only now beginning to come to an end.
The decay of Reagan Republicanism dates to 1988, Reagan's final year in office. With no clear-cut successor from the right on the horizon, the party chose Reagan's dutiful vice president, George H.W. Bush. A scion of the old GOP establishment, the son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut who was a Wall Street banker and golfing partner of President Dwight Eisenhower, Bush had shifted both rightward and southwesterly over the years. Although he was never able to forge a convincing political identity as a Connecticut Yankee in Texas, as president he dealt with the enormous federal deficits left over from Reagan's "supply-side" stewardship. In 1990, he finally broke his "no new taxes" vow — thereby earning the enduring contempt of the Republican right. The quirky but effective third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 was a sure sign that Bush had lost touch with the GOP's anti-government base, and his inability to cope with a recession tolled his end.
Bill Clinton's victory over both Bush and Perot seemed to spell a revival of center-left liberalism in a new form. But during his first two years in office, Clinton's missteps and defeats, coupled with the self-destructive fracturing of the Democratic Congress, handed the Republicans an opportunity to regroup. Their recapture of the House for the first time in 40 years — by forging their "Contract With America" during the midterm elections in 1994 — seemed to portend that Clinton, like his predecessor, would be a one-term president. Yet the brash ideological leadership of the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, foreshadowed the GOP's turn to the far right and further hastened the unraveling of the conservative ascendancy. Clinton outfoxed Gingrich in battles over the federal budget and held the line against GOP demands to slash Medicare and cut taxes, and most of the public blamed Congress for the partisan bickering in Washington. In 1996, only two years after Democrats had been repudiated at the polls, Clinton won re-election with an increased plurality, marking the first time a Democrat had won two presidential terms since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
The outcome incited congressional Republicans to a fury, and conservative leaders even more doctrinaire than Gingrich — including House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay — took advantage of the anger to hijack the party. In 1998, after a network of right-wing operatives discovered Clinton's sexual trysts with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the congressional right-wingers forced Clinton's impeachment. But public backlash over the impeachment drive contributed to Gingrich's downfall as speaker and Clinton's acquittal in the Senate. With Clinton's popularity soaring and his troubles behind him amid peace and prosperity, it looked as if 2000 would bring a solid Democratic victory.
But nothing went right for the Democrats. Their nominee, Vice President Al Gore, believed that the Lewinsky scandal had made Clinton a liability and distanced himself from the very administration he had served so ably. Rather than building on the legacy of the previous eight years, Gore embraced the bogus idea of "Clinton fatigue," signaled by his naming Joe Lieberman, the sanctimonious Clinton critic, as his running mate. The left wing of the party backed the protest candidacy of Ralph Nader, and the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, ran as a "compassionate conservative" who would uphold the kinder, gentler mode of his father as a kind of Clinton-lite. The press, following its dismal performance as mouthpiece for impeachment prosecutor Ken Starr, gave credence to a string of pseudoscandals about Gore, tarnishing his integrity and casting him as a privileged, self-regarding dissembler. Nader's nihilistic campaign to destroy Gore won him enough votes to throw New Hampshire to Bush, and the election ultimately turned on the razor-thin margin in Florida. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court, including four Reagan-era appointees (and the man Ronald Reagan had named chief justice, William Rehnquist), finally intervened, stopping the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, and made Bush president.
Clinton's precarious center-left alliance did not hold. With Bush's court-engineered victory, the conservative ascendancy entered a new and even more radical phase. But that phase would prove to be its last.
George w. Bush was easilyunderestimated by the press and his Democratic opponent. When he entered the White House, he looked like the luckiest political leader on the face of the earth. A man whose early efforts in business and politics had failed, Bush had persevered thanks to well-connected family and friends who repeatedly saved him from his failures and gave him his chance to make a fortune when he sold his financial interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team. In 1994, Bush won his first of two terms as governor of Texas — a high-profile job with, as stipulated in the state's constitution, undemanding day-to-day authority. Having learned the nastier arts of politics while helping out in his father's national campaigns and apprenticing with the ferocious Republican operative Lee Atwater, Bush formed an alliance with one of the greatest political tacticians in the country — Karl Rove, another Atwater disciple. After Sen. Robert Dole lost his presidential bid in 1996 — and with Rove pulling strings in the background — Bush emerged as a top candidate for the 2000 nomination.
Bush's family connections, once again, proved invaluable. For nearly half a century, from 1952 to 1996 — except for 1964, the year of Barry Goldwater — the Republican Party's national ticket included a Nixon, a Bush or a Dole. Through thick and thin, the party's top leadership had retained a coherence that was familial as well as political. And when Ronald Reagan transformed the party in 1980, he wisely did not uproot its establishment, as the Goldwaterites had tried to do in 1964, but rather absorbed it into his grand new coalition by naming George H.W. Bush as his running mate. Twenty years later, another Bush was waiting in the wings.
Although born in Connecticut and schooled at Yale and Harvard Business, the younger Bush had successfully assimilated himself to Texas business and political culture as his father had never managed. The black sheep of the family, Bush also, at the age of 40, took Jesus Christ as his personal savior. That conversion, he said, freed him from a well-documented addiction to drink. It also brought him into much closer connection with the right-wing evangelical base that Reagan had brought into the Republican Party and with which Bush senior never forged a convincing bond.
The younger Bush perfectly embodied a new melding of the Republican right and the GOP establishment, a process essential to the success of the conservative ascendancy since 1980. The only other serious challenger for the nomination was neither a son of the party establishment nor a Reaganite ideologue: Sen. John McCain. A hero of the Vietnam War (a conflict from which Bush had escaped by serving in the Texas Air National Guard), McCain married a wealthy second wife and made his political home in Arizona, where being a conservative and a maverick fit the Goldwater tradition. His independent stands on campaign-finance reform, regulation of the tobacco industry and health care irked the party's leadership but gained him favor inside the news media.
Read the entire story in the issue of Rolling Stone, on stands August 22, 2008.