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Tales of Woe

The myth of a powerful Republican establishment.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Myth number two is that George W. Bush almost destroyed the conservative movement, first by running as a bleeding heart or “compassionate conservative” and then by spending too much once he was in office, trashing the brands of the cause and the party, and leading to setbacks in 2006 and 2008. But in 2000 he ran as a compassionate conservative because the original kind had worn out its welcome. Clinton’s triangulation had pushed politics back to the center, the economy was booming, and aggressive cost-cutting was not in vogue. In fact, it might have been a distinct liability. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, “Republicans were more popular in Bush’s first term, when they were expanding entitlements, than in his second term, when they were trying to reform one. .  .  . His expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs .  .  . was overwhelmingly popular. .  .  . It’s hard to believe that Bush would have won Florida in 2000 without promising to match the Democrats on the issue, or that he would have won Ohio in 2004 without having made good on the promise.”

Spending was not an issue in the 2006 or 2008 elections, and did not become one until later, when Barack Obama’s tripling of the debt and expansion of government forced it front and center, and the collapse of the eurozone made it clear that the welfare state as known in the West was approaching the end of its tether. The GOP took a pounding in the 2006 midterms, but largely because of Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that 2006 was the worst year, and October 2006 the worst month, in Iraq since the war started. The party took a bath again in 2008 because Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, almost bringing down the Western financial system with it​—​an event traceable less to Bush in particular than to both parties’ connivance in the housing bubble, a disaster that no party in power could have hoped to survive. 

Small-government conservatives may have been seething for a long time before their anger erupted in 2009, but until then they were merely one part of a large coalition, and it took the financial collapse and Obama’s big spending to put the size-of-government issue front and center in the public mind. Their critiques would have been more convincing had they been made while Bush was president, and not after the fact and in retrospect, when it was a lot more convenient and easy to do.

Myth number three is the belief that McCain ran and lost in 2008 as a moderate, failing as promised to win independents, and losing an election a conservative should have been able to win. But in fact he did a remarkable job in a difficult year​—​people were war-weary, and all parties have trouble holding the White House for more than two terms in succession​—​drawing close to Obama through most of the summer, and pulling ahead with independents in early September, before the financial implosion kicked in. At the time of the financial implosion on September 15, McCain was leading in all the key swing states (some of which Bush had lost in both his elections) and among swing voters, who were moving in his direction. But after the economic crisis, he quickly lost ground and never regained it, losing independents by 8 points, and losing most of the states that had been in his column, including some that had not gone Democratic in years. Most of the losses came in states which had large cities surrounded by large, wealthy suburbs, in which real estate values and stock market holdings had fallen most sharply, suggesting that circumstances and not ideology were a key driver.

To conservatives, this proved that Republicans should never nominate anything less than a true-blue believer, but it may prove only that having a financial meltdown less than two months before an election when you hold the White House is really bad planning. And who really believes that they can hold power forever, when history shows us that control of the White House tends to turn over in fairly regular swings?

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