Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.
If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: after the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to “make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second.”
Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” declared Ronald Reagan. “Government is the problem.” So why worry about governing well?
Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.’s “Southern strategy,” which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: “You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People.
So the reign of George W. Bush, the first true Southern Republican president since Reconstruction, was the culmination of a long process. And despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party’s divisive tactics — long before Sarah Palin, Mr. Bush declared that he visited his ranch to “stay in touch with real Americans” — and its governing philosophy.
That’s why the soon-to-be-gone administration’s failure is bigger than Mr. Bush himself: it represents the end of the line for a political strategy that dominated the scene for more than a generation.
Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they’ll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn’t play the way it used to.
Will the Republicans eventually stage a comeback? Yes, of course. But barring some huge missteps by Mr. Obama, that will not happen until they stop whining and look at what really went wrong. And when they do, they will discover that they need to get in touch with the real “real America,” a country that is more diverse, more tolerant, and more demanding of effective government than is dreamt of in their political philosophy.
There is going to be a lot of historical revision of the Bush years. Republicans are going to argue that he wasn’t as bad as people remember him and that, when he was bad, it was because he was defying conservative principles. In fact, we’re already seeing the latter as right-wingers call for the GOP to go back to its “conservative roots.”
But the GOP’s “conservative roots” are the same kind of divisive backlash politics that George Bush used. Krugman is absolutely correct in arguing that the Bush administration was the culmination of generations of conservative movement building. Bush’s administration was the first time modern Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government, and they showed us just what happens when Republicans are allowed the keys to the kingdom.
And Krugman says what I’ve been saying for a while: the GOP’s troubles can’t be fixed with band-aids. America is undergoing some serious demographic shifts that, as it stands, are helping the Democratic Party. Unless the GOP re-evaluates their ideology and their tactics, it’s likely they will remain in the minority for the forseeable future, no matter how much they try to polish or bury the Bush years.