The failure of the administration of George W. Bush — and the accompanying crisis of the Republican Party — has caused a political meltdown of historic proportions. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bush enjoyed the greatest popularity ever recorded for a modern American president. Republicans on Capitol Hill, under the iron rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, fattened their coffers through a fearsome operation overseen by corporate lobbyists and GOP henchmen that functioned more like an empire than an old-fashioned political machine. “Republican hegemony,” the prominent conservative commentator Fred Barnes rejoiced in 2004, “is now expected to last for years, maybe decades.”
Now, only four years later, Bush is leaving office with the longest sustained period of public disapproval ever recorded. No president, at least in modern times — and certainly no two-term president — has risen so high only to fall so low. Indeed, Bush’s standings in the polls describe one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the American presidency- second only, perhaps, to that of Richard Nixon, the only president ever forced to resign from office. And in Congress, the indictment and downfall of DeLay and a host of associated scandals involving, among others, the Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, have badly damaged the party’s image. The supremacy of the GOP, once envisioned by party operatives as a “permanent majority,” may be gone for a very long time to come.
At first glance, the collapse of the Republican Party seems rapid and unexpected. When viewed within the larger context of American history, however, the party’s breakdown looks familiar, even predictable. As in earlier party crackups — 1854,1932,1968 — the demise has involved not a single, sudden explosion but a gradual unraveling followed by a sharp and rapid deterioration amid major national calamities. If Bush and the Republican majority in Congress accelerated the demise of Ronald Reagan’s political era with their assault on traditional American values and institutions — including the rule of law itself — it is a decline that began two decades ago.
A few examples serve to place recent events in historical perspective. In 1848, the Whig Party, which had emerged more than a decade earlier to oppose the Democrats of Andrew Jackson, captured the presidency for the second time in its history and consolidated what looked like a formidable, nationwide political base. Yet differences over slavery and territorial expansion had always hampered party unity, and in 1854, amid the sectional warfare caused by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the Whigs ceased to be a national force, replaced by the anti-slavery Republican Party as the nation lurched toward the Civil War.
Three generations later, in 1928, the Republicans, although the dominant party, were battered by scandals and old battles between conservative party regulars and self-styled progressives. GOP power brokers wisely chose as their presidential nominee Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose engineering projects and disaster- relief efforts had earned admiration across party lines. Hoover crushed his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, in what looked like the culmination of the party’s growth since the Civil War. Four years later, though, following the stock-market crash of October 192.9 and the onset of the Great Depression, the Republicans went to pieces — and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after burying Hoover in a landslide, inaugurated the New Deal.
In 1964, the Texas liberal Democrat Lyndon Johnson wiped out the right-wing hero Barry Goldwater and ushered in a true working majority of Democratic reformers in Congress. Political commentators hailed a second birth of New Deal liberalism, and some experts even wondered if the Republicans would soon go the way of the Whigs. Yet the Democrats had long been battling among themselves over civil rights issues, and Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 triggered the defection of the once solidly Democratic South. A mere four years after Johnson’s outsize triumph, Democratic infighting over his escalation of the war in Vietnam, as well as over racial turmoil in the nation’s cities, paved the way for Richard Nixon’s election. The breakdown of the Democrats, coupled with Nixon’s downfall in 1974 in the Watergate scandal, blew the ideological center out of American politics and cleared the way for the conservative age of Ronald Reagan — the age only now beginning to come to an end.
The decay of Reagan Republicanism dates to 1988, Reagan’s final year in office. With no clear-cut successor from the right on the horizon, the party chose Reagan’s dutiful vice president, George W. Bush. A scion of the old GOP establishment, the son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut who was a Wall Street banker and golfing partner of President Dwight Eisenhower, Rush had shifted both rightward and southwesterly over the years. Although he was never able to forge a convincing political identity as a Connecticut Yankee in Texas, as president he dealt with the enormous federal deficits left over from Reagan’s “supply-side” stewardship. In 1990, he finally broke his “no new taxes” vow — thereby earning the enduring contempt of the Republican right. The quirky but effective third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 was a sure sign that Bush had lost touch with the GOP’s anti-government base, and his inability to cope with a recession tolled his end.
Bill Clinton’s victory over both Bush and Perot seemed to spell a revival of center-left liberalism in a new form. But during his first two years in office, Clinton’s missteps and defeats, coupled with the self-destructive fracturing of the Democratic Congress, handed the Republicans an opportunity to regroup. Their recapture of the House for the first time in 40 years — by forging their “Contract With America” during the midterm elections in 1994 — seemed to portend that Clinton, like his predecessor, would be a one-term president. Yet the brash ideological leadership of the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, foreshadowed the GOP’s turn to the far right and further hastened the unraveling of the conservative ascendancy. Clinton outfoxed Gingrich in battles over the federal budget and held the line against GOP demands to slash Medicare and cut taxes, and most of the public blamed Congress for the partisan bickering in Washington. In 1996, only two years after Democrats had been repudiated at the polls, Clinton won re-election with an increased plurality, marking the first time a Democrat had won two presidential terms since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
The outcome incited congressional Republicans to a fury, and conservative leaders even more doctrinaire than Gingrich — including House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay- took advantage of the anger to hijack the party. In 1998, after a network of right-wing operatives discovered Clinton’s sexual trysts with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the congressional right-wingers forced Clinton’s impeachment. But public backlash over the impeachment drive contributed to Gingrich’s downfall as speaker and Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate. With Clinton’s popularity soaring and his troubles behind him amid peace and prosperity, it looked as if 2000 would bring a solid Democratic victory.
But nothing went right for the Democrats. Their nominee, Vice President Al Gore, believed that the Lewinsky scandal had made Clinton a liability and distanced himself from the very administration he had served so ably. Rather than building on the legacy of the previous eight years, Gore embraced the bogus idea of “Clinton fatigue,” signaled by his naming Joe Lieberman, the sanctimonious Clinton critic, as his running mate. The left wing of the party backed the protest candidacy of Ralph Nader, and the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, ran as a “compassionate conservative” who would uphold the kinder, gentler mode of his father as a kind of Clinton-lite. The press, following its dismal performance as mouthpiece for impeachment prosecutor Ken Starr, gave credence to a string of pseudoscandals about Gore, tarnishing his integrity and casting him as a privileged, self-regarding dissembler. Nader’s nihilistic campaign to destroy Gore won him enough votes to throw New Hampshire to Bush, and the election ultimately turned on the ra-sor-thin margin in Florida. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court, including four Reagan-era appointees (and the man Ronald Reagan had named chief justice, William Rehnquist), finally intervened, stopping the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, and made Bush president.
Clinton’s precarious center-left alliance did not hold. With Bush’s court-engineered victory, the conservative ascendancy entered a new and even more radical phase. But that phase would prove to be its last.
George W. Bush was easily underestimated by the press and his Democratic opponent. When he entered the White House, he looked like the luckiest political leader on the face of the earth. A man whose early efforts in business and politics had failed, Bush had per- severed thanks to well-connected family and friends who repeatedly saved him from his failures and gave him his chance to make a fortune when he sold his financial interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team. In 1994, Bush won his first of two terms as governor of Texas — a high-profile job with, as stipulated in the state’s constitution, undemanding day-to-day authority. Having learned the nastier arts of politics while helping out in his father’s national campaigns and apprenticing with the ferocious Republican operative Lee Atwater, Bush formed an alliance with one of the greatest political tacticians in the country- Karl Rove, another Atwater disciple. After Sen. Robert Dole lost his presidential bid in 1996 — and with Rove pulling strings in the background — Bush emerged as a top candidate for the 2000 nomination.
Bush’s family connections, once again, proved invaluable. For nearly half a century, from 1952 to 1996 — except for 1964, the year of Barry Goldwater -the Republican Party’s national ticket included a Nixon, a Bush or a Dole. Through thick and thin, the party’s top leadership had retained a coherence that was familial as well as political. And when Ronald Reagan transformed the party in 1980, he wisely did not uproot its establishment, as the Goldwater-ites had tried to do in 1964, but rather absorbed it into his grand new coalition by naming George H.W. Bush as his running mate. Twenty years later, another Bush was waiting in the wings.
Although born in Connecticut and schooled at Yale and Harvard Business, the younger Bush had successfully assimilated himself to Texas business and political culture as his father had never managed. The black sheep of the family, Bush also, at the age of 40, took Jesus Christ as his personal savior. That conversion, he said, freed him from a well-documented addiction to drink. It also brought him into much closer connection with the right-wing evangelical base that Reagan had brought into the Republican Party and with which Bush senior never forged a convincing bond.
The younger Bush perfectly embodied a new melding of the Republican right and the GOP establishment, a process essential to the success of the conservative ascendancy since 1980. The only other serious challenger for the nomination was neither a son of the party establishment nor a Reaganite ideologue: Sen. John McCain. A hero of the Vietnam War (a conflict from which Bush had escaped by serving in the Texas Air National Guard), McCain married a wealthy second wife and made his political home in Arizona, where being a conservative and a maverick fit the Goldwater tradition. His independent stands on campaign-finance reform, regulation of the tobacco industry and health care irked the party’s leadership but gained him favor inside the news media.
After McCain shocked Bush by beating him in the New Hampshire primary, Bush tacked hard right for the next major battle, in South Carolina, where Karl Rove and his supporters unleashed a well-financed dirty-tricks campaign. McCain did not anticipate how scurrilous the operation would become: “They know no depths, do they?” he asked reporters, apparently having never heard of South Carolina’s own Lee Atwater. Bush not only decisively defeated his opponent; he personally humiliated him. Unable to recover from the setback, McCain bided his time, looking for an opportunity to regain his honor. But further surprises awaited him and his party — along with some fierce ironies.
Bush came to office as the first Republican president in nearly a half-century to enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress. Although put in office through a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court — and without a majority of the popular vote — he proceeded to govern, much as Reagan had, as if he had won by a landslide. It quickly became clear that Bush would subordinate his “compassionate conservatism” in favor of reigniting the Reagan agenda, chiefly through regressive tax cuts. To old Reagan hands, Bush seemed to be building the third term of the Reagan presidency, as his father had promised but failed to do. The New York Times later called the new president “the fruition of Reagan” and predicted that he stood “a good chance of advancing a radical agenda that Reagan himself could only carry so far.” Some political moderates comforted themselves with the thought that Bush’s early appointees — notably Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleeza Rice as national security adviser — were signs of a president devoted to what he had pledged would be a “humble” foreign policy. But Bush’s selection of the hardline religious conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general came as a shock to more pragmatic Republicans. And two other figures — both political veterans, albeit nearly a decade apart in age — quickly assumed enormous power inside the White House, directing the administration’s highly politicized and doctrinaire agenda. Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru, worked as a dirty-trickster for Nixon in 1972 and refined his mastery of inflammatory, wedge-issue politics alongside Atwater. Having masterminded Bush’s political victories, Rove now dreamed of forging a revised and impregnable national majority through tax cuts, “values issues” such as gay rights, and a muscular foreign policy. Never again would a Republican president make the mistake that Bush’s father had, by appearing to backtrack from the one true Republican faith as established by Reagan. Instead, policy decisions would be dictated almost entirely by political considerations, stoking the cultural and ideological polarization that, according to Rove, was the key to Republican domination.
Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, worked as an aide in the Nixon White House and went on to serve — before his lucrative stint at Halliburton — as President Ford’s chief of staff, a congressman from Wyoming and the elder Bush’s secretary of defense. His low-key manner, and his service in the center-right administrations of Ford and the elder Bush, gained Cheney a reputation as a levelheaded conservative. But his politics had always been more Nixonian, and since the mid-197os he had developed close ties to hawkish, so-called neoconservatives. Cheney’s penchant for secrecy, combined with his unrivaled understanding of the Washington brreaucracy, made him a formidable advocate for the “imperial presidency.”
The convergence of Bush, Rove and Cheney, alongside Republican congressional majorities led by Trent Lott in the Senate and Tom DeLay in the House, presaged a government far beyond Rea-ganism in its ideological zealotry. While Reagan cut taxes, poured billions into the military, vowed to reduce the size of government and paid lip service to the religious right, he proved open to compromise and political adjustment. The born-again Bush, by contrast, refused all efforts at compromise and made Christian fundamentalism a centerpiece of his agenda, marrying the cultural crusades of right-wing evangelicals to the interests of traditionally pro-Republican corporate business sectors, including oil and energy companies. For Bush and his inner circle, Rove’s divisive political tactics were not merely an effective strategy for winning elections — they were a blueprint for governing.
The public reacted coolly at first to the new president’s radicalized approach — a clear indication that, whatever the White House strategists might have thought, the voters were not looking forward to a turbocharged Reagan. Only four months after Bush took office, his heavy-handed approach to Congress backfired. In May 2001, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, a moderate Republican, announced he was leaving his party to caucus with the Democrats, handing them a majority in the Senate. By September 10th, less than eight months into his term, Bush’s approval ratings were barely hovering above 50 percent.
The atrocities of the next day changed everything — and, ironically, prepared the way for Bush’s eventual collapse. In the short term, to be sure, Bush’s initial toppling of the Taliban rallied a traumatized nation. But in the first weeks after the terrorist attacks, events behind the scenes at the White House-trying to tie Iraq and Saddam Hussein directly to Al Qaeda, crafting a “War on Terror” to serve as a vehicle to pursue partisan advantage — signaled a long march into a political as well as military morass. Fear and secrecy became deeply entrenched in every branch of the federal government, driving public policy to a degree that arguably outstripped the Red Scares that gripped the nation following both world wars.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11th, Rove informed a meeting of the Republican National Committee that he fully intended to make the War on Terror a partisan issue, charging that the Democrats could not be trusted to keep the nation safe. The White House’s thorough politicization of a war crisis — without parallel in modern American history— would continue over the weeks and months to come, from Republican campaign ads to sudden announcements of elevated terrorist alerts by Homeland Security, seemingly whenever the president’s poll ratings began to dip. In the midterm elections of 2002, barely a year after September 11th, public anxieties helped the Republicans win back the Senate and expand their majority in the House by eight seats.
The decision to politicize the threat of terrorism led directly to a politicized war. By the time the long-expected American invasion of Iraq finally came in 2003, a large majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship possessed weapons of mass destruction — the Bush administration’s chief casus belli — and most favored military action even if the United Nations refused to go along. The press, primed by carefully orchestrated leaks, lined up behind the administration. Even outlets that criticized Bush’s tactics as overly hasty heeded the drumbeat for war: “It’s not surprising that in the wake of Sept. 11th, the president would want to make the world safer, and that one of his top priorities would be eliminating Iraq’s ability to create biological, chemical and nuclear weapons,” The New York Times editorialized during the run-up to the invasion. Briefed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top advisers that Saddam had an active program to develop nuclear weapons, Congress also fell into line. Bush, dismissing pleas to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to complete their mission, launched a precipitous invasion that quickly deposed Saddam’s regime. On May 1st, 2003, standing beneath a banner on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln that read “mission accomplished,” Bush declared major American combat activities completed.
It would prove to be one of the most disastrously premature spectacles in the history of the American presidency. Far from completed, the U.S. military and political adventure in Iraq had just begun. Before long, the country had descended into chaos, torn apart by anti-American insurgency and Muslim factional warfare. Lacking adequate troops and equipment, U.S. military commanders became reliant on National Guardsmen, many of whom were compelled to serve multiple tours of duty. Private mercenaries operated outside the authority of Iraqi and American law, and U.S. troops systematically brutalized and tortured suspects at Abu Ghraib, giving the world a new and ugly image of American supremacy. Between the day Bush announced the end of major hostilities and the close of 2004, nearly 1,200 American soldiers died — with no end in sight to either the occupation or the killing.
With the 2004 election approaching, Bush’s approval ratings fell to barely 40 percent — yet the Democrats were unable to take advantage of the administration’s failings. The party’s candidate, John Kerry, proved remarkably slow and ineffective at responding to a classic GOP smear campaign on his war record. Having stripped Kerry of his most imposing credential, the Bush campaign portrayed him as an inconsistent “flip-flopper” on defense and military issues. But the Republicans did not, as many Democrats wanted to believe, simply smear their way back into office. Bush enjoyed deep support among the Christian fundamentalists whom he had brought into the federal government, as well as among many of the hedge-fund billionaires he had created with his regressive tax policies. And many Americans, still shaken by the horror of 9/11, sincerely believed that the Republicans would do a better job of thwarting foreign terrorists than the Democrats. Despite his disastrous mismanagement in Iraq and his attacks on civil liberties at home, Bush finally managed to win the popular vote. Although his margin in the final tally was the slightest ever for a successful presidential re-election, he immediately announced that he had gained the political capital he needed to pursue his radical agenda. In only a matter of months, however, the bottom began to fall out.
Nothing fails like failure. The deepening quagmire in Iraq, coupled with reports that the administration had relied upon false as well as questionable evidence to justify the original invasion, soured the public’s mood — and led a few commentators, including some high-profile conservatives, to dissent from the conventional wisdom. According to George Will, the Bush presidency’s crusade in Iraq had produced “a torrent of acrimony about the dubious inception and incompetent conduct of a war that became perhaps the worst foreign-policy debacle in the nation’s history.” The growing dissent was fueled by the administration’s efforts to claim extraordinary executive powers under the cover of an undeclared war, to disregard the Constitution and defy Congress by using so-called signing statements as a pretext for disregarding the law, to spy on American citizens without warrants and to torture prisoners detained in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay.
Developments on the home front severely worsened Bush’s political situation. First came the White House’s abortive campaign to privatize Social Security under the guise of reform. Then came the Terri Schiavo affair, in which Bush signed extraordinary legislation giving federal courts the authority to force a husband to keep his irreparably brain-damaged wife alive. The administration’s campaign of deceit and manipulation on Iraq also began to unravel with the revelation that Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, leaked the identity of a CIA agent as an act of political retribution.
Then there was Hurricane Katrina. Historians may yet record that the debacle in New Orleans, rather than the deepening morass in Iraq, marked the turning point in the public’s evaluation of Bush and his administration. No matter how badly the White House bungled the political and military situation in Iraq, the televised scenes of death and desperation in New Orleans generated an even deeper outrage. Andrew Jackson, the general and future president, had saved New Orleans from British invasion in 1815; in 2005, in the aftermath of Katrina, George Bush appeared to have surrendered the city without a fight to a natural disaster. Refusing to cut short his summer vacation when the hurricane hit, he praised manifestly inept subordinates, housed survivors in toxic trailers and provided no meaningful federal action to rebuild the city. The catastrophe dramatized the results of decades of Republican indifference to the plight of the nation’s urban poor; it also dramatized the logical conclusion of an anti-government, right-wing ideology that, under Bush, had turned once-admired government operations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency into nests of cronyism and futility. And it all unfolded live on TV, as Americans watched in real time while the federal government, through incompetence and neglect, abandoned a great American city to its fate.
Has the Republican-controlled Congress shown any political independence — indeed, had it simply performed its duty as a separate branch of government — Bush might have been checked, or at least warned about the recklessness of his course. But far from exercising oversight and applying the brakes, the House and the Senate saw themselves as blindly loyal to the White House. Instead of halting their party’s skid, they contributed to it with their own scandals and corruption.
When Newt Gingrich ascended to the speaker’s chair after the Republican triumph in 1994, he hailed it as “the most explicitly ideologically committed House Republican Party in modern history.” Under his vigorous leadership, House Republicans upheld doctrinaire conservatism as a form of purity and enforced strict discipline within the ranks. No deviation from the party line, as established by Gingrich and his inner circle, was tolerated. But when Gingrich failed to obliterate Clinton, some of his lieutenants, even fiercer than he, challenged his leadership — and finally, in 1998, overthrew him. Maximum power flowed to Tom DeLay, a former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, whose inflexible rule as House majority whip earned him the nickname “the Hammer.” DeLay, elevated to the post of majority leader in 2003, preferred to work in the shadows, pulling the strings while his hand-picked choice for speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, presided.
Under DeLay’s leadership, Congress became a virtual political extension of the White House. Until 2006, there was barely a peep of criticism from either Republican caucus as the Bush administration passed regressive tax cuts, invaded Iraq, mismanaged the occupation and vastly augmented executive authority on shaky legal grounds. DeLay also happily pursued numerous financial as well as political adventures. Chief among them was the K Street Project, designed to enforce absolute deference from Washington lobbying firms to the Republican regime by compelling them to hire party activists in exchange for favorable legislation and loosened regulatory oversight for major corporate clients. By systematically replacing the bipartisan lobbying ranks with GOP hardliners, DeLay attempted to make Republicans the only party with whom corporate America would be allowed to do business — a partisan power grab of breathtaking audacity.
Congressional corruption, on a spectacular scale, is nothing new. During the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, the Crédit Mobilier scandal and later abuses of federal power involved blatant bribery of elected officials by large railroad corporations and other emerging industrial giants. But DeLay and his accomplices were attempting to turn American business into an exclusive and permanent ATM for the Republican Party-by turning Congress into a rubber stamp for corporate lobbyists. Before long, however, the deep-seated corruption began to fall apart. First DeLay became ensnared, along with other top Republicans, in a web of financial scan’ dais involving GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Separate charges about illegal fundraising in Texas led to DeLay’s indictment, which forced him to surrender his seat in April 2006. Then a gay-sex scandal involving young congressional pages and Rep. Mark Foley — a staunch and vocal soldier in the Republican culture wars-severely undercut the GOP’s image as the defender of traditional values. In the midterm elections of 2006, voters signaled their mounting displeasure with GOP corruption and fear-mongering by giving Democrats control of both the House and Senate. Within a year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove had been forced to resign.
The past 18 months have only accelerated the Republican Party’s plunge. In Iraq, the dispatch of 30,000 additional troops in the “surge” has helped quiet the violence but done little to alter the political stalemate among rival Iraqi factions. At home, a dramatic decline in the real estate market has led to a credit crisis, and the nationwide economic downturn has been made far more severe by the skyrocketing price of crude oil, which pushed prices at the pump over the once-unimaginable mark of $4 per gallon. Nowhere was the diminished and increasingly divided quality of the GOP more apparent than in its original field of candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination. Each man represented one strand in the old Reagan coalition, but none stood for the coalition as a whole —and each, by dint of his religious background or political positions, offended elements in the Republican base. Pro-war voters could back former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani; religious conservatives supported former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee; anti-tax, pro-business Republicans went for multi-millionaire and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney; and doctrinaire right-wing libertarians flocked to Texas congressman Ron Paul.
Enter John McCain. Nearing the age of 72 — three years older than Reagan was when he became the oldest man ever elected to the White House — McCain seemed to have passed his prime long ago. More than any other GOP aspirant, McCain had alienated his party’s bedrock supporters, especially with his past disdain for the religious right and his initial opposition to Bush’s tax cuts. Low on campaign funds and lacking any clear base, McCain seemed likely to join the ranks of Al Gore and John Kerry, becoming the latest Vietnam veteran to fail in a bid for the presidency. But McCain’s detractors overlooked some important advantages he still enjoyed: the respect and even affection the political press had for him as a supposed “straight talker,” his links to the party’s glory days under Reagan and his abiding popularity in New Hampshire, where he focused almost all of his early campaigning. McCain also had enormous wells of pride, which pushed him to vindicate his loss to Bush in 2000 and, at last, become president.
McCain’s ultimate victory in the primaries owed a great deal to a decision that he had taken several years earlier — one that increasingly appears to have been a fatal political misstep. As McCain began gearing up for his campaign, his contempt for Bush over the nastiness in South Carolina in 2000 came into conflict with his quest to reclaim the personal honor that Bush and Rove had besmirched. In the end, expediency won out over contempt. McCain warmly endorsed Bush for re-election in 2004, and stepped up his efforts to woo the elements of the party that distrusted him — above all, the Bush family and its key associates. He arranged for audiences in Texas with the elder Bush and lined up important Bush operatives to work in his own campaign. He also drew closer to the president on policy matters, vowing to oppose any repeal of the Bush tax cuts he once opposed.
At the time, with the Reagan coalition splintering, it looked like a smart move to reconcile with what was left of the old party establishment, even in its current radicalized form. As it happened, though, McCain chose to join himself at the hip with George W. Bush at the very moment when the president’s popularity began its final descent to rock bottom. As a result, the one-time maverick, having secured the GOP nomination, now enters the general-election campaign carrying the full burden of the most unpopular American president in modern times. McCain’s dilemmas are, to be sure, a product of his own foibles and ambitions, as well as of the collapse of his party. Still, there is a measure of pathos to his plight. To please elements of the diminished Republican base that dislike him, as well as to please the Bush family operation that once dishonored him, he has been forced to embrace positions that plainly make him uncomfortable. Those positions, and the charges of inconsistency that taking them entail, may well alienate the independent voters that McCain must win over if he is to prevail in November. Having been defeated by George Bush in 2000, he may find himself defeated by the legacy of Bush’s presidency in 2008.
It is, of course, too early to predict whether these ironies will come to pass. For the last 30 years, with the exceptions of 1992 and 1996, the Democrats have proved themselves experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Old divisions between “new politics” liberals and the party’s working-class base — divisions put aside during Bush’s presidency-were reopened in the prolonged primary-campaign battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For all of his travails, McCain — alone of those the Republicans might have nominated — remains far better liked by the general public than his party.
Yet none of this belies the crucial underlying fact of this year’s campaign: that the Republican Party, which has dominated American politics for more than a generation, has reached the end of an era. No matter who wins the presidency, the new Congress will almost certainly include a greatly enlarged Democratic majority in the House and a clear Democratic majority in the Senate. And whatever the outcome in November, the Republican Party will still face the unavoidable task of reinventing itself after the Bush presidency’s calamitous descent into radicalism — the final fall in the party’s long decline.
Reinventing themselves will not be easy for the Republicans, even if McCain manages to win. Historically, political parties that reach a crisis — the Federalists after the ascension of Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the Whigs in the 1850s, the Republicans in the 1930s, the Democrats in the 1970s — recoup only if they recover a sense of intraparty comity, disciplining while also accommodating their more extreme elements on the right and left. It took the Democrats decades to recover from the divisions of the Vietnam era, before Bill Clinton offered a more moderate basis for the party’s future. Even now, it is unclear how thoroughly the Democrats have overcome underlying fissures and restored the shared values essential to hold together a diverse national majority.
The Republican Party, having presided over the longest conservative political ascendancy in U.S. history, now finds itself out of touch with the American people, held hostage by radicals who have forsaken basic values like respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. The ideological factions and interest groups that now make up the party — the foreign-policy neoconservatives, the religious right and the pro-business, anti-tax radicals — are increasingly angry and inflexible in their demands. At the beginning of the conservative ascendancy, it took a politician with the skills and magnetism of Ronald Reagan to hold those forces together and build a national majority-and Reagan’s America was far less diverse, and far more suspicious of Democrats, than the nation is today. Now the old Navy man John McCain, the last of the Reagan-era Republicans — bearing the wounds of war and politics, his party’s ultimate prize his at last — finds himself swimming against strong historical tides. In the end, even if he should somehow manage to evade the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwrecked GOP, he may well find himself pulled out to sea by the inexorable and unprecedented undertow of the Bush presidency.