The Magazine

The Politics of a Failed Presidency

How John McCain and the Republican party should deal with the Bush record.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JEFFREY BELL
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The failure of the Bush presidency is the dominant fact of American politics today. It has driven every facet of Democratic political strategy since early 2006, when Democrats settled on the campaign themes that brought them their takeover of the House and Senate in November 2006. Nothing--not even the success of the American troop surge in Iraq--has altered or will alter the centrality of George W. Bush and his failed presidency to Democratic planning in the remainder of 2008.

Until very recently, it was in the Republicans' interest to find ways of sidestepping or finessing this central political fact. Congressional Republicans sensed that open acknowledgment of the failure of the Bush presidency could cause a collapse in floor discipline, perhaps leading to a series of veto overrides and even forced surrender in Iraq. Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination had to deal with the fact that in our polarized politics, Republican primary voters are still predominantly pro-Bush. From the beginning of this cycle, GOP campaign strategists were aware that presidential candidates openly contemptuous of the Bush administration would go nowhere in the primaries (Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo) or prove to be nonstarters (Chuck Hagel).

John McCain's clinching of the Republican nomination changes many if not most of these GOP calculations. If Republicans are to accomplish the unusual feat of winning a third consecutive presidential election in the context of an unpopular administration of their own party, they will have to develop a narrative that takes into account the failed presidency in their midst while at the same time making a plausible case for a new Republican presidency and continued Republican strength in -Congress. This in turn requires an understanding of Bush's failure that is not self-discrediting for Republicans.

Such a narrative is not the same thing as an assessment or forecast of the president's historical standing. As he himself has often said, it is much too early to guess how his actions will ultimately be judged. Bush policies of which today's voters have tired may look far better a few decades from now. Much depends on the presidents who follow--specifically, whether they see fit to reinvigorate his initiatives or close them down.

But at least for purposes of this year's election, the unfinished, unresolved character of so many of his initiatives is the failure that McCain will have to deal with. If the past seven years have been frustrating for millions on the left who from the start dissented from the president's worldview and the actions he took in support of it, they have been doubly frustrating for conservatives like me who voted for him twice without hesitation or regret, identified with most of his views and responses, yet watched as the train of events in the nation and the world turned most Americans against him and--the more acutely current problem--against his party.

What have the Bush years been about? To answer that question, it is helpful to review Bush's leadership in light of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, for, broadly and from the beginning, Bush's issue profile has been closer to that of Reagan than has the profile of any other Republican president or nominee in the six presidential elections starting with 1988. To me, Reaganism means traditionalism on social issues, supply-side tax rate cuts in economics, and an assertive foreign policy featuring American moral leadership on behalf of a more democratic world.

In each of these three policy areas, Bush developed distinctive approaches that, while consistent with those of Reagan, were more than derivative. They represented, at least arguably, further development of the Reagan core themes, adapted to the political scene 20 years removed from the world Ronald Reagan grappled with and successfully reshaped.

I recognize that in concentrating on the Reaganesque aspect of Bush's policies, and touching lightly if at all on policy areas not illuminated by the Reagan-Bush comparison, I offer less than a comprehensive evaluation of the Bush presidency. Nor do I mean to imply that the areas left out are unimportant or unworthy of analysis--only that the Reagan-Bush comparison is of special value for understanding the political challenge faced by McCain and other Republican candidates this year. Among other things, the comparison applies over much of the turf that has led most voters to conclude that this is a failed presidency.

In 1999 and 2000, Bush and his political strategist Karl Rove sought to revitalize the alliance between Republicans and social conservatives that had greatly contributed to the Republican landslides of the 1980s but had been far from vibrant in 1992 and 1996. Beginning in the early stages of the 2000 cycle, Bush and Rove individually wooed a significant number of influential social conservatives and asked for their ideas.