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The Bush effect (part 2)

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20 January 2012 11:42

Part 1 of this post here.

How did George W Bush, the president whose chief political strategist, Karl Rove, boasted about building a 'permanent Republican majority', leave his party in such poor repair?

The first reason relates to policy failures. In the international realm, the Bush Administration's missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan have undercut the GOP's traditional claim to be the party best able to protect US national security interests and to project America power abroad. Likewise, the soaring federal debt, fueled in large part by the budgetary demands of an overstretched military, has also made it harder for the GOP to portray itself as the party of deficit hawks, another election-time staple.

Along with damaging the GOP brand, these failures have had unhelpful political consequences.

The colossal $15 trillion national debt, which mushroomed even more under President Obama, has fueled the rise of the Tea Party movement. Its presence has had the magnetic effect of pulling GOP candidates to the right during the primary season, thus making it harder to tack back towards the middle, as all presidential candidates are prone to do, in time for the general election.

Perhaps Bush should also take a portion of the blame for the mudslinging going on in South Carolina. After losing New Hampshire to John McCain in the 2000 race for the nomination, he fought the grubbiest campaign I have ever witnessed firsthand – a view shared by veterans of the trail who followed Richard Nixon in his squalid pomp. His eventual victory proved, however, that fiercely negative campaigning works in South Carolina, a lesson that evidently has not been lost on the present batch of candidates.

Arguably, the main way in which George W Bush has injured the Republicans, however, is by placing obstacles in the way of his brother, Jeb (pictured), one of the party's most complete politicians.

Were US politics based on merit alone rather than primogeniture, we might already be speaking of a President Jeb Bush in the past tense. After all, in 1999 the then Governor of Florida was widely viewed as a far more substantial figure than the then Governor of Texas. Now however, one of the most famous names in US politics has moved from being a respected brand to a damaged brand. One day it might be ripe for rehabilitation, but the widely-held view is that America is not yet ready for a Bush restoration.

There are entries to make on the positive side of the ledger. George W Bush tried to overhaul immigration law so that millions of illegal aliens could achieve legal status – a move that would have boosted the Republicans amongst America's fastest growing demographic. But GOP hardliners thwarted him in Congress and Obama ended up winning 67% of the Hispanic vote partly as a result.

The other important point to make is that, despite these handicaps, the GOP could still take the presidency in November, given the high rate of unemployment and Obama's 49% approval rating. Four presidents have started re-election year with under a 50% approval rating. Only one, Richard Nixon, survived.

At the GOP convention four years ago, George W Bush was a no-show (much to the relief of John McCain) because he wanted to monitor a hurricane churning towards New Orleans. Nor has he been a visible presence in this race. Watching the Republican debates, I have yet to hear his name mentioned admiringly by any of the candidates.

Curiously, this will be the first presidential election cycle since 1976 that a Bush has not held statewide or national office, or sought it. But even in the family's absence, the Bush effect is still being felt.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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