Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Maybe George Bush has done one good thing after all - he's fucked the Republican Party for the next 20 years

1. Emerging Republican Minority
by Paul Krugman/ New York Times

Remember how the 2004 election was supposed to have demonstrated, once and for all, that conservatism was the future of American politics? I do: early in 2005, some colleagues in the news media urged me, in effect, to give up. “The election settled some things,” I was told.

But at this point 2004 looks like an aberration, an election won with fear-and-smear tactics that have passed their sell-by date. Republicans no longer have a perceived edge over Democrats on national security — and without that edge, they stand revealed as ideologues out of step with an increasingly liberal American public.

Right now the talk of the political chattering classes is a report from the Pew Research Center showing a precipitous decline in Republican support. In 2002 equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats, but since then the Democrats have opened up a 15-point advantage.

Part of the Republican collapse surely reflects public disgust with the Bush administration. The gap between the parties will probably get even wider when — not if — more and worse tales of corruption and abuse of power emerge.

But polling data on the issues, from Pew and elsewhere, suggest that the G.O.P.’s problems lie as much with its ideology as with one man’s disastrous reign.

For the conservatives who run today’s Republican Party are devoted, above all, to the proposition that government is always the problem, never the solution. For a while the American people seemed to agree; but lately they’ve concluded that sometimes government is the solution, after all, and they’d like to see more of it.

Consider, for example, the question of whether the government should provide fewer services in order to cut spending, or provide more services even if this requires higher spending. According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead.

And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that “it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” up from 59 percent in 2000.

The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” Interestingly, the big increase in disgruntlement over rising inequality has come among the relatively well off — those making more than $75,000 a year.

Indeed, even the relatively well off have good reason to feel left behind in today’s economy, because the big income gains have been going to a tiny, super-rich minority. It’s not surprising, under those circumstances, that most people favor a stronger safety net — which they might need — even at the expense of higher taxes, much of which could be paid by the ever-richer elite.

And in the case of health care, there’s also the fact that the traditional system of employer-based coverage is gradually disintegrating. It’s no wonder, then, that a bit of socialized medicine is looking good to most Americans.

So what does this say about the political outlook? It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But at this point it looks as if we’re seeing an emerging Republican minority.

After all, Democratic priorities — in particular, on health care, where John Edwards has set the standard for all the candidates with a specific proposal to finance universal coverage with higher taxes on the rich — seem to be more or less in line with what the public wants.

Republicans, on the other hand, are still wallowing in nostalgia — nostalgia for the days when people thought they were heroic terrorism-fighters, nostalgia for the days when lots of Americans hated Big Government.

Many Republicans still imagine that what their party needs is a return to the conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan. It will probably take quite a while in the political wilderness before they take on board the message of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback in California — which is that what they really need is a return to the moderate legacy of Dwight Eisenhower.

2. The Iraq war
Collateral damage
The Republican Party is among the war's victims -- from The Economist

FOUR years ago, as American troops rolled across Iraq, the Republican Party was on a roll too. Republicans not only controlled the whole of Washington (seven of the nine Supreme Court justices had been appointed by Republican presidents). They controlled the majority of governorships as well—including those of mega-states such as Florida and New York—and they were winning the war of ideas, thanks to a division of conservative think-tanks.

Republican strategists were consumed by heady visions of power without end. The “war on terror”, which was dividing the Democrats, was encouraging Republican factions to bury their differences. Karl Rove, George Bush's chief strategist, liked to compare his boss to William McKinley, the late-19th-century president who had ushered in an age of Republican dominance. Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader, dubbed Mr Bush “Reagan's son”.

For a moment the 2004 election seemed to justify this vision, with an improved Republican performance among blacks, Hispanics and, particularly, women. But by 2007 the Democrats were back in control of both chambers of Congress and itching to retake the White House. Fully 40% of Republicans believe that the Democrats will capture the presidency in 2008, compared with 12% of Democrats who think the Republicans will hang on to it. Ken Mehlman, the party chairman who oversaw the 2004 triumph, is now advising hedge funds on how to deal with a Democratic-leaning world. The Republicans may well be left with nothing except the solid South and a few patches of the Midwest, just as the Democrats were at the end of the 19th century.

There are plenty of reasons for the party's agonies. The Republicans fell victim to all the diseases of incumbency—from spending like drunken sailors to corruption to cronyism—and the Bush administration made a hash of responding to Hurricane Katrina. But the Iraq war lies at the heart of the party's problems. The war has deprived Mr Bush of the oxygen of popularity. A recent CBS News/ New York Times poll found that only 39% of Americans now think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, compared with 55% who think it was a mistake. It has also provided the Democrats with a huge stick with which to beat the opposition.

Far from uniting Republicans, the war is beginning to divide them. It is true that solid majorities of Republicans continue to believe that embarking on the war was the right decision (76%) and that America should stay until the job is done (71%). It is also true that the Democrats remain divided on the subject. But the wedge that Mr Bush fashioned in 2004 is now being driven into his own coalition, with sections of the conservative intelligentsia in full-scale revolt.

Stephen Bainbridge, a conservative academic at the University of California, Los Angeles, has argued that Mr Bush's decision to go to war has “pissed away the conservative moment by pursuing a war of choice via policies that border on the criminally incompetent.” William Buckley, the pope of the conservative movement, says that if Mr Bush were the leader of a parliamentary system, “it would be expected that he would retire or resign”. Richard Viguerie, another conservative veteran, says that “I've never seen conservatives so downright fed-up as they are today.”

The war has eviscerated the administration's reputation for competence—and with it the idea that the Republicans have an inherent advantage as the “Daddy” party. An administration that once boasted about its clutch of CEO s will forever be remembered for phrases such as “slam dunk” (of WMD intelligence) and “Mission Accomplished”, or for disasters such as the failure to prepare Walter Reed and other military hospitals to deal with casualties. The same CBS News/ New York Times poll found that only 28% of people approved of Mr Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq.

And that is hardly the limit of the damage. A CNN /ORC poll found that 54% of people thought that the administration had deliberately misled the American people about whether Iraq had WMD . An ABC News/ Washington Post poll in February found that 63% of respondents did not trust the Bush administration to report honestly about possible threats from other countries. The Democratic Party will use its majority status over the next couple of years to deepen the public's unease about the administration's conduct of the war. As a result, an “ R” by a candidate's name could be even more of a scarlet letter in 2008 than it was in 2006.

Mr Bush's mishandling of the war has damaged the Republican Party's two biggest advantages over the Democrats—its reputation for skilful foreign policy and for the unapologetic use of force. The likes of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George Bush senior and Brent Scowcroft clearly identified the Republicans with mastery of foreign policy. (Bob Woodward asked Mr Bush whether he had consulted his father before invading Iraq. The son replied that he had consulted a “higher father”.) By contrast, the peace wing of the Democratic Party clearly linked the Democrats with being soft on defence.

But the Iraq war has destroyed the Republicans' advantage of decades. The party is losing support even among the once solid armed services. Today only 46% of servicemen describe themselves as Republican, compared with 60% in 2004—and only 35% of them approve of the handling of the war. Voters are now much more willing to listen to the Democrats on war and peace. Barack Obama's statement in 2002—“I'm not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars”—is a perfect refrain for a resurgent party.

The Iraq war has also eroded the Republicans' advantage in the “war on terror”, not least because of Mr Bush's success in tying the two subjects together in the 2004 campaign. Many Republicans thought that the war on terror might have the same effect as the cold war, consolidating their party's hold on the executive branch (Democratic presidents had to wait until the end of the cold war to win two terms in the White House). But that now seems unlikely. The Republican Party's gigantic advantage in this area after September 11th has all but vanished. The same February ABC News/ Washington Post poll found that 52% of respondents trusted the Democrats in Congress to do a better job of handling America's campaign against terrorism than Mr Bush.

At the same time, the war has taken a huge toll on the administration's domestic policies. After the 2004 election Mr Bush sketched out an ambitious agenda for avoiding the fate of previous second-term presidents and moving the country in a more Republican direction: reforming immigration and Social Security, simplifying taxes and lifting regulations. That agenda has come to almost nothing. Senior figures have been constantly distracted by dealing with the fallout from Iraq. (One reason the administration was so tardy in dealing with Katrina was that Karl Rove was worried he might become a victim of the Plame affair.) In late 2005 the administration concluded that it was impossible to push through big initiatives, such as Social Security reform, in a time of war.

The man who will pay the biggest political price for Iraq will ultimately be Mr Bush. It is hardly surprising that liberal historians debate whether he is the worst president ever. But now conservatives are beginning to play the same game. A recent poll of hard-core conservative activists found that only 3% described themselves as George Bush Republicans, compared with 79% who regarded themselves as Ronald Reagan Republicans. But the damage will not be limited to the party leader. For years to come, the Republicans will be paying a collective price for the “stuff” that happened in Iraq.


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