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Bush, Carter, and Clinton

by Carl Wicklander, published

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative picks up on this Jeffrey Toobin New Yorker article:

"George W. Bush, in contrast, gives the Republicans their own version of the Jimmy Carter problem. Some Republicans criticized Obama for campaigning in 2008 and 2012 as if Bush were still on the ballot, but from a political perspective Obama probably did not run hard enough against Bush, who is much less popular than Carter. It's true that Americans generally soften toward their Presidents over time, but a George W. revival does not appear imminent. It's hard to imagine that many voters in 2016 will be pining for a restoration of the Bush years. (This could be an especially pressing problem for one prospective candidate in 2016, George W.'s brother Jeb.)"

It would almost perfectly fit the definition of poetic irony if George W. Bush became the Republicans' Jimmy Carter. If it wan't enough that the Republican refrain that President Obama was Jimmy Carter's second term was stale, it would only be fitting that Bush toxified his party the way Carter did his.

The Democrats were mired in presidential mediocrity following Carter's loss in 1980 to Reagan. They followed up with Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. It took Bill Clinton in 1992 as a "New Democrat" to begin bringing their party out of the presidential wilderness.

Clinton cut his political teeth on the failed George McGovern campaign of 1972, but his greatest asset as a presidential candidate was that he was young and represented a break from what the country considered the excesses of Great Society liberalism and the countercultural revolution. (It's still revolting to me, but "safe, legal, and rare," was actually an improvement on the abortion issue both before and after "Bubba").

Clinton was truly more of a political animal than anything else, but what he did to repair the Democratic brand for the Oval Office shouldn't be understated. Bush, on the other hand, is more like Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis in that he represented the worst excesses of his brand: religious right do-gooderism married to corporatism and arrogant interventionism. The only difference is that Mondale and Dukakis didn't get into the White House to wreck their havoc.

Like Bush, Carter was a relative neophyte who served only a single term as governor of Georgia before becoming president. Carter was completely in over his head, but Bush was blessed with an uninspiring candidate in his re-election whereas Carter was not.

The Democrats responded to the Carter debacle by nominating dim copies of the vanquished and lost three consecutive presidential elections. The Republicans responded in 2008 and 2012 with Bush body doubles, or in the case of McCain, a nominee who was even worse.

What the GOP needs is its own Clinton: Someone who can admit that the party overreached when it was in power and failed. So far, much of what I hear coming from Republican Party organs is that messaging is the problem.

We have a good message. We just don't communicate it well enough. 

But that completely misses the point. Saying it is merely a problem of messaging implies that there was nothing wrong with what happened from 2001 to 2009 and that there was nothing wrong with the way the 2012 nominee comported himself. It says that the invasion of Iraq, unfunded liabilities, torture, and cronyism were conservative ideals that successive Republican presidents should repeat. If only there was a better way to sell that to the American people!

He didn't mean it, of course, but Clinton said, "The era of big government is over." Who can imagine a Republican saying, "The era of corporatism is over" or "The era of preventive war is over" even if he doesn't mean it either?

I'm not one who thinks it is a foregone conclusion that the days of the GOP are over. America has (almost) always been a two party country. The Democrats will inevitably overreach and there will have to be a vehicle for people to register their discontent. The question is whether the GOP will realize that it failed and correct itself enough to govern as more than simply the non-Democrats.

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