The Bush Defeat and its Lessons
June 16, 2014
But time is running out for the Republican Party. They have an important choice to make and little time to make it. The Party must find its soul. Will it be a party of principle or will it be a party of pragmatism?
Modern American political parties have almost always been built around four competing elements or claims to rule. Each one of these elements claims a unique authority to rule. The first claims to rule on the basis of its ability to distribute patronage to the party faithful. In years past, for instance, postmasters were appointed by the Postmaster General because they were faithful to the party in power. The party exists to serve and reward those special-interest groups that have made electoral victory possible. The second claims to rule on the basis of pragmatism and compromise. The pragmatist eschews the divisiveness of ideological politics for consensus- building. The third claims to rule by virtue of a special qualification (e.g., education or noblesse oblige) that they and they alone posses. The elitist believes that a corps of trained and inspired politicians and bureaucrats can rise above the conflict and strife of party politics in order to govern in the name of the public good. The fourth claims to rule in the name of certain philosophic principles. Committed liberals and conservatives, for instance, are driven almost exclusively by their fidelity to a certain vision about the way America ought to be.
Both of our major parties—the Republicans and the Democrats—have built coalitions around all four of these elements, but each is more or less dominated and divided by two major factions. For the last twenty years the Democrats have been torn between the patronage or New Deal liberals and the ideological or New Left liberals. The Republicans have likewise divided into warring camps—between the pragmatists or Rockefeller conservatives and the ideological or Goldwater conservatives. The Democrats were finally united in 1992 by a pragmatic technocrat. By way of contrast, the Republicans were torn apart under the leadership of a pragmatic elitist. Ironically, the Democrats won because they gave the perception of moving toward the middle, while the Republicans lost for the very same reason.
What lesson should the Republican Party lean then from this demoralizing defeat? In many ways the Republican Party stands once again where it stood in 1964—betrayed by their own, by the pragmatists who sought compromise at the expense of the fundamental principles which had given the party sustenance, life and direction for more than twenty years. The stunning election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the fountainhead of a political and intellectual movement that had been building steam since 1964. Reagan’s great achievement—and ultimately the reason why he was elected—was that he defined and rebuilt the Republican Party around a conservative philosophy. The Republicans won in 1980 and 1984 because Ronald Reagan articulated a clear cut philosophy, and then he deliberately set out to implement that philosophy. Reagan Democrats voted Republican for ideological reasons as much as for the man. The American people said they believed in Reagan’s philosophy of limited government, free enterprise and a strong national defense.
The Republican party started to lose the 1992 election as far back as 1986, during the last half of the Reagan Administration, when it started to compromise its basic principles and philosophy. The Reagan Revolution started to unravel as pragmatists, gearing up for ’92, started to take over the lower echelons of the Party and the administration. The heady days of 1981 were coming to an end. Slightly embarrassed by the ideological fervor of the Reaganites, a covert movement led by a new generation of Republican Mugwumps, career bureaucrats and cynical elitists, started to push the party back toward the center. Rather than fight the Democratic Congress on principle, the pragmatists sought bi-partisanship and compromise.
The election of George Bush in 1988 brought the Reagan Revolution to an end. Despite running and winning on the principles of 1980, the first task of the Bush Administration was to purge all the Reaganites from the second and third levels of the administration and from positions of public policy. It is not unreasonable that Bush would want to rebuild the administration in his own image and to put his own people into positions of authority, but it was an act of treason to betray the ideas that had built the modern Republican Party and the great coalition of 1980. The great climax of this steady movement by the pragmatists to the left came of course with the “read my lips” repudiation. The tax compromise of 1990 was not only a repudiation of one of the fundamental principles of conservatism—it was a repudiation of the integrity and honor that comes from keeping your word and fighting even when the battle is going to be tough and maybe lost.
The great loss of 1992 was not the election of Bill Clinton; it was the inability of President Bush and his cronies to defend the conservative philosophy. Quite possibly, Ronald Reagan’s greatest accomplishment was to defeat the Democrats at what they had always been best at: rhetoric and political discourse. Ever since the New Deal, Democrats have controlled and manipulated the terms of debate in this county. That all changed with Ronald Reagan. Liberalism was now a dirty word that all but the far left shrank from. Reagan was an elegant and powerful voice for the twin towers of conservative philosophy: limited government and capitalism. George Bush, by way of contrast, was simply incapable of defending anything other than his record in foreign affairs—and even that rather ineffectively.
In 1980, 1984, and 1988, the American people voted in overwhelming numbers for the conservative agenda. In 1992 they started to believe all the lies that the Democrats and the dominant media culture were saying about Reaganomics. Consequently, the real victim of 1992 was the philosophical and rhetorical capital that Reagan had worked so hard to build up with the American people. Will it even be possible for a conservative in 1996 to run on a platform explicitly dedicated to finishing the Reagan Revolution? The best proof of a political movement’s collapse is the day when it’s leaders have nothing to offer as an ultimate ideal but a plea for “moderation.”
Lest we forget, the incompetence of the Bush campaign was inversely matched by the brilliant campaign of Bill Clinton. In my opinion, it was one of the best campaigns, if not the greatest, that I have seen in a long career in politics. It was absolutely magnificent. Clinton picked his theme early and never deviated from it. With the help of a duplicitous media he was able to focus the nation on the economy and nothing else. The Bush response was a day late and a dollar short. Bill Clinton had raised political campaigning to an entirely new level. The Republicans must now find it within themselves to meet the challenge.
But time is running out for the Republican Party. They have an important choice to make and little time to make it. The Party must find its soul. Will it be a part of principle or will it be a party of pragmatism? And if a party of principle, what principles will it stand for? If it searches too long, as the Democrats did for those many long years in the wilderness, the Republicans will never find their way back to the Promised Land.
And so the battle is now engaged; but the battle will not be easy. It will be hard, it will be lonely and it will take a great deal of courage. It was my generation that reinvented the Republican Party on philosophical principles. But the vision, the courage, the dedication, the moral fire must now rest with a new generation of conservatives—those young people willing who are willing to fight for capitalism, for limited government, and for the family.
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