President Bush and Karl Rove, his principal political strategist, intended
to create an enduring Republican governing majority during his tenure.
Rove leaves the stage without that being accomplished, to put it mildly.
In 2006, Republicans lost the control of Congress they had been given by
voters since 1994. (Democrats took over the Senate for a time in 2001 due
to the defection of Jim Jeffords, who had been elected as a Republican.)
Going into the 2008 election, polls indicate that voters prefer Democrats
by overwhelming margins, to hold office and on a wide range of issues.
Unless something changes drastically, Republicans appeared headed toward
having their national influence shrunk to 1960s levels.
In large part, 9/11 and the Iraq war happened.
Bush was first elected in 2000 on primarily a domestic agenda. After 9/11,
he became a self-described "war president." Attention and political
resources were understandably and appropriately diverted from domestic
The current protracted engagement in Iraq is fundamentally at odds with
American instincts. We are willing to take action to bat back looming
threats. However, we aren't comfortable trying to run or manage the affairs
of other countries and peoples. We are, at root, still the peaceful trading
nation the founders intended.
The Bush-Rove strategy to create an enduring Republican governing majority,
however, was fundamentally flawed independent of the national security
preoccupation and missteps.
Bush wanted to create such a majority by reconciling conservatism with an
active federal government. A large federal presence would be accepted, even
expanded, but redirected to the accomplishment of conservative goals. Some
dubbed this "big-government conservatism."
The best example of the strategy in action was No Child Left Behind, Bush's
signature first-term domestic accomplishment. The federal role in education
was expanded, and funding increased, but in service to the conservative
reform of accountability through testing.
Bush initially proposed to link a prescription drug benefit to Medicare
reform. Instead of the federal government directly paying the medical bills
of seniors, it would offer premium subsidies to purchase private health
insurance. The administration flagged on reform, however, when
congressional Republicans balked.
Changing Social Security from a system in which one generation pays the
retirement benefits of the previous generation to one in which people save
for their own retirement never got off the ground.
Republicans didn't do much on reform. But they certainly got big government
down pat. And in the process revealed an important political truth: big
government is inherently corrupting of conservative principles.
Under Bush, federal spending has increased twice as fast as it did under
President Clinton. Republicans perfected the art of the earmark, federal
money for local projects designated by members of Congress. The claim to be
the party of spending discipline was thoroughly squandered.
Liberals and Democrats view themselves as the natural governing party in
the United States. And they may be right.
Certainly conservatives seem more at home in opposition than in power. In
the modern era, perhaps the natural role of the conservative party, if
Republicans can regain that appellation, is to check the excesses of the
liberal welfare and regulatory state.
There is reason to hope for more. There is always a tendency to accept the
prevailing political currents as fixed. In American politics, however, they
In the 1970s, there was nothing in polling or electoral trends to suggest
that the era of Reagan was about to dawn. But it was.
Many young people appear to have a profound skepticism about government.
Perhaps a conservatism re-rooted in libertarian instincts can fare better,
once this political season inevitably passes.
Regardless, the Bush-Rove era has demonstrated that big-government
conservatism is a failure, both as a political strategy and as a governing