Can Republicans return from Bush calamity?
By Jonathan V. Last
Enough celebrating. It’s time for recriminations!
Of course, like all Americans, I wish President-elect Barack Obama well and hope his presidency is a success. Obama’s campaign was impressive in many ways. Yet his election seems less an endorsement of his political beliefs — whatever they are — than a rejection, root and branch, of President Bush.
There’s no question that Bush wrecked the Republican Party. In 2000, when he was elected, Republicans had 50 senators and a 10-seat edge in the House. He will go out behind the biggest Democratic presidential win since LBJ, with Republicans clinging to 40 Senate seats and facing a 79-seat Democratic advantage in the House.
GOP wrecked before
The GOP has been wrecked by presidents before. The question is whether Bush is Nixon or Hoover.
When Herbert Hoover was swept into the White House with 58 percent of the vote in 1928, Republicans held a 56-39 lead in the Senate and a whopping 267-163 advantage in the House. (Each chamber had one independent at the time, and Congress was smaller because there were only 48 states.)
Unlike Bush, Hoover lost re-election. His term was so disastrous that Democrats flipped Congress in just four years, taking over the Senate, 60-35, and the House with an incredible 310-117 margin. It would be 14 years before Republicans regained control of Congress and 20 years before they again held the presidency.
Richard M. Nixon’s political legacy was not quite so calamitous. Like Bush, Nixon won a three-way election for his first term by a razor-thin margin. He came to power facing solid Democratic majorities in Congress: Democrats had 57 senators and a 53-seat edge in the House.
Eight years later, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald R. Ford, those numbers ballooned. Democrats emerged from the Nixon years with 61 Senate seats and a 145-seat advantage in the House.
After Nixon’s disgrace, however, it took only four years for Republicans to recapture the White House and the Senate. The House, meanwhile, stayed Democratic for 18 more years.
While the numbers at the end of Hoover’s and Nixon’s terms were similar, the damage they inflicted on the GOP was very different.
Hoover presided over the splintering of an electoral coalition that was never reassembled. He won the presidency with an alliance of prohibitionists, business boosters and isolationists. He described his platform as one of "rugged individualism." When Republicans returned to power a generation later, they were a different party.
In contrast, the consequences of Nixon’s failures were largely personal.
What will be the legacy of Bushism? Republicans are in bad shape, but they are better off than they were in either 1933 or 1977, at least by the numbers.
And there is still some hope that the GOP remains a viable governing party. The environment will never again be as hostile for Republicans or as fertile for Democrats.
After all, John McCain was saddled with two unpopular wars, a burst housing bubble, the highest gas prices in history, and an outgoing president with sub-30 percent approval ratings. The media worked tirelessly against him. Obama outspent him 2-to-1.
And yet McCain was actually leading in the polls until Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. collapsed in September, triggering the mother of all financial panics. Even with that anvil around his neck, McCain lost by only six points.
What’s left of party?
On the other hand, what’s left of the Republican coalition that Bush rode to power? Bush campaigned as a center-right unifier who would be a good-government reformer. He governed as a pork-barrel cronyist who eagerly expanded the government in pursuit of political advantage.
And as for Iraq and Afghanistan — leaving aside any value judgments — wars always foster political peril for the party that prosecutes them. As Winston Churchill bitterly observed: "The shadow of victory is disillusion. The reaction from extreme effort is prostration. The aftermath even of successful war is long and bitter."
As a result, Bush left nearly every segment of his coalition — from the social conservatives to the fiscal conservatives, from the hawks to the realists — unhappy to the point of mutiny. It is unclear whether they will be united again or, will Republican rugged individualism dissolve into nothingness.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.