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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2007

Aspiring Republicans steer clear of the Bush legacy

CONDOLEEZZA Rice is one. Alberto Gonzales is another, though he may be gone by the time this is published. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas might be one, too. It's hard to think of a fourth.

This is the time in the course of a two-term presidency when the chief executive's mind turns to his legacy, but the truth is that there are almost no Bush Republicans left. There are, to be sure, people who back the President, and do so vigorously; he's been through hell, starting with Sept. 11, and for that reason alone he has earned some people's support and sympathy. But supporting the President and wanting to pattern your political persona (and to bet your political future) on his are very different things.

That's one of the things that's so odd about the upcoming presidential election. There's nobody who says he wants to keep things the way they are, or build on the accomplishments of the last eight years. As the 2008 campaign heats up, none of the GOP candidates will be crooning evocatively of the autumn leaves and George Bush.

That's stranger than you might think. In 1960, which we remember as the opening of that great decade of change, Richard M. Nixon ran as the man best qualified to continue the policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and, if some dead people hadn't voted in Illinois, he might have carried the day and we might never have talked about the summons of John F. Kennedy's trumpet. In 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson ran for president against a true avatar of change, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the president's implicit message was: Let us continue. He wasn't talking about continuing his own policies, but those of President Kennedy.

Four years later, when LBJ was beaten and bedraggled, Hubert H. Humphrey awkwardly portrayed himself as a figure of continuity - separating himself from the president he served as vice president only in October, far too late. At the end of Ronald W. Reagan's two terms, George H.W. Bush, by then fervently anti-abortion and devoutly conservative, ran as the proud heir to Mr. Reagan. Vice President Al Gore, like Humphrey before him, tried to have it both ways, as the legatee of his president (Bill Clinton) and as a new departure.

At least Messrs. Humphrey and Gore struggled with how to reconcile the fact that they were, respectively, Johnson and Clinton Democrats. Nobody's even touching the Bush legacy in 2007. The closest may be Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, who is, as Trollope might put it, "a clever, though not over-scrupulous practitioner" of conservatism. But surely Mr. Humphrey was closer in outlook to Mr. Johnson (both were leaders on civil rights, for example) and Mr. Gore was closer to Mr. Clinton (both were economic New Democrats) than Mr. McCain is to Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain's entire national political persona is built on being the guy who thought Mr. Bush was a tool of corporate interests in 2000, and a silly, unqualified figure besides.

The Democrats have every reason to exploit this phenomenon, but it's hard to take their explanations seriously, so giddily are they expressed.

The most sober elucidation may come from the most recent cover story of National Review, whose conservative bona fides are beyond question. In that story, which is about what the magazine calls the administration's "incompetence," Richard Lowry, the erudite editor of the journal, writes, "The incompetence charge has gained such traction that even many Republicans buy it," adding: "Some of Bush's strengths as a political leader, particularly his loyalty and optimism, have proven to have a double edge when it comes to running the government."

Commentators have often remarked that the 2008 race may be the most open in eight decades. By that they mean that there is not a natural successor to the presidency or to a major-party nomination. But an even greater distinguishing characteristic of the 2008 election is that no one is willing to take on the legacy of the man who holds the White House now and claim it as his own.

This is more than a curiosity. It is a verdict on the Bush presidency handed down by political professionals themselves. It is an implicit indictment of the President, to be sure, but let's remember that political grand juries are not always shrewd in their judgment. Harry Truman was not exactly a political folk hero in 1952, but today hardly anyone's just mild about Harry. He's a more heroic figure now than the military hero who succeeded him (Eisenhower), although no one jokes about the Eisenhower administration the way we used to.

It may be Mr. Bush's peculiar preference to want to be judged not by contemporaries but by history. From the start, his rhetoric has suggested so. But there are great perils to this inclination, for one of the criteria historians sometimes employ is whether a president set in motion a new way of thinking that was embraced after he left the scene. By that measure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mr. Reagan alike have received high marks.

That does not appear to be the case with Mr. Bush. For the Republicans, this offers some peril beyond the Bush legacy. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that in 2002 the slice of Americans who considered themselves Republicans (43 percent) was almost identical to the slice who considered themselves Democrats. No more. Today the Democrats hold an advantage of 50 percent to 35 percent.

For years the President has said he was his own man. No one ever doubted it. But even he must wish there were at least one leading figure who would call himself a Bush Republican as his presidency draws to a close. It's lonely at the top, especially when your approval ratings are plummeting to the bottom.



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