We already know that George W. Bush will walk away from his wreckage next week, having bequeathed us record budget deficits, a tanking economy, a needless war costing half a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, a sullied global image and so much more.
But one other facet of his legacy is widely overlooked: He wrecked his own Republican Party.
Don’t take my word for it. Various Republicans rendered their verdicts on Bush long before the November election. For instance, Peggy Noonan, the commentator and former Reagan speechwriter, argued a year ago that “Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart.”
If that sounds too harsh, perhaps Tom Davis, a former House GOP leader, will strike you as more diplomatic. Referring to Bush last spring, Davis said: “He’s just killed the Republican brand. ... The Republican brand is in the trash can. ... If we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf.”
Well, that sounds a tad hostile, too. But given the precipitous decline of the GOP since 2004, these sentiments are no surprise. Bush doesn’t deserve all the blame; a scandal-marred Republican Congress, featuring Tom DeLay, sexual predator Mark Foley and convicted felon Ted Stevens, played a crucial role in alienating the electorate. But clearly the buck stops with the guy who dubbed himself the Decider.
Thanks primarily to Bush’s leadership, the Republicans have plummeted to minority status. They lost the ’08 presidential race by 10 million votes, the party’s widest losing margin in 44 years. Since 2004, they have lost 54 House seats and 13 Senate seats — probably 14, since Democrat Al Franken will likely weather the last-ditch GOP court challenges to his apparent victory in Minnesota.
Bush damaged his party in two fundamental ways: He turned off a lot of conservatives within the party’s base and, more important, he turned off the moderate and independent voters who typically swing elections to one side or the other.
Small-government conservatives lost their enthusiasm for Bush because he wound up spending like a liberal Democrat. While partnering with the GOP-led Congress, Bush never vetoed a spending bill.
But Bush’s worst political legacy for the GOP is his alienation of swing voters. The exit polls tell the tale. In the 2004 election, Bush essentially split the independents with John Kerry; in 2008, John McCain (dogged by the Bush track record) lost independents by eight percentage points — and the election itself by seven.
By a different measure, Bush lost self-identified moderate voters by nine points in 2004; four years later, McCain lost them by 21.
Why Bush lost the center is no mystery. The reasons include his mendacious salesmanship and poor execution of the Iraq war; the erosion of America’s image abroad; his inept response to Katrina; the aforementioned budget deficits; his elevation of incompetent party hacks to crucial government posts; his opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research; his notorious attempt, in cahoots with the Republican Congress and the religious right, to keep Terri Schiavo alive in defiance of state court rulings and the wishes of her family.
A new analysis by the conservative Hoover Institution deftly frames the GOP quandary: “The decline of Republican strength occurs when strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans become independents, and independents lean more Democratic or (are) even becoming Democrats. ... The problem for Republicans is that their base is slowly shrinking, and they cannot win without the support of moderates” — all of which suggests “an emerging party realignment” to the GOP’s detriment, perhaps “a long dry run.”
The Hoover analysis barely touched on another Republican woe: the hemorrhaging of support among Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnicity in the electorate. Bush, however, is not to blame for that. From day one, he intended to champion path-to-citizenship immigration reform — not just because his stance would draw Hispanics to the GOP, but because he sincerely believed in it.
He ultimately was foiled by the border-security activists and politicians on his right flank. Long after Bush is gone, the party will be stuck trying to figure out how to attract Hispanics while somehow appeasing wary conservatives.
But Bush deserves the brunt of the party’s ire. His arrogance, coupled with his certitudes, did much to trash the brand.
I doubt that Republicans are angry to the point of throwing shoes. But they probably were not amused at Bush’s huffy answer to a question during an ABC News interview that was part of his legacy tour. When it was pointed out that Saddam Hussein had not conspired with al-Qaida, and that al-Qaida had not been a presence in Iraq until we invaded, Bush fired back: “So what?”
He’s staying in character to the bitter end. And, in political terms, his party is stuck with clearing the debris.
— Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.