Bush Lashes Out at the GOP
On Monday, a member of the Bush family made comments that infuriated one wing of the political spectrum. Is “W” back to resume his torment of the left? No, this was brother Jeb, and the people he pissed off were his own. Bush criticized the hyper-partisan stance of today’s Republican Party, and, most controversially, stated that Ronald Reagan would have a hard time in today’s GOP “based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground.”
The best example for what Bush is talking about is the victory of Richard Mourdock over longtime incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana’s Republican Primary. Mourdock’s victory was seen as a triumph of conservatism over moderation, but the difference between the two was more in tone and governing philosophy than in policy. What in Lugar’s voting record made him too moderate for the GOP? His 0% rating from the ACLU? Or the 0% from NARAL, Human Rights Campaign, and the AFL-CIO? Maybe it was the 5% from the League of Conservation Voters. Lugar’s real sin was not moderation on the issues, but his willingness to be collegial and seek common ground with Democrats. The man who defeated Lugar, in contrast, told the New York Times, “The time for being collegial is past. It’s time for confrontation.” Mourdock famously defined bipartisanship as “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
Conservatives have pushed back on Bush’s comments, pointing to the nomination of Mitt Romney as proof that Bush is being too dramatic. Romney, after all, was distrusted by much of the Republican base because of his history of moderation (he once even distanced himself from Reagan!), but won the Republican nomination anyway. But anyone who paid close attention to the Republican Primary knows that Romney’s moderate past was a huge liability—despite a large financial advantage and the experience of running in 2008, Romney had a real scare put into him by weak but more consistently and unabashedly conservative candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Furthermore, Romney had to bend over backwards to distance himself from his moderate past, disavowing old positions, declaring himself “severely conservative,” and tip-toeing around controversial conservative heroes.
The substance of Bush’s comments is nothing new. The “no compromise” strategy of the Tea Party/Obama era Republican Party has long been lamented both by progressives and by conservative pundits upset with the direction of their party. What makes Bush’s comments surprising is that they come from a man assumed to have a stake in how he’s perceived by the very people he’s chastising. As recently as a few months ago, Bush was trumpeted as the “white knight” who could unite the Republican Party, win the Republican primary, and defeat President Obama. His name has repeatedly come up in speculation for Mitt Romney’s running mate, despite his persistent denials of any interest in that assignment. Bush is also seen as one of the early frontrunners for the 2016 Republican nomination if Romney loses this year. Staking out a controversial position on an intra-party squabble—especially one going against the current winners of that squabble—is a curious move for someone with a plausible shot at being his party’s leader.
In speculating about Bush’s motives for making his comments, pundits have put forth two polar opposite hypotheses. One possibility is that Bush has resigned himself to the fact that Americans are not (and probably never will be) ready for another Bush administration—following his brother’s sage “fool me . . . can’t get fooled again” doctrine—and so Bush can simply speak his mind with no concern for his political standing. The other theory is that Bush’s comments actually reveal his presidential ambitions; in this theory, Bush expects that Romney will lose in 2012 and Republicans will see the error of their confrontational ways. And then guess who will be standing ready to lead them?
There’s also a middle ground for what Bush could be thinking: that he would like to be president someday, but only at a certain price. For a born-and-bred Republican insider like Bush, the kowtowing to the talk-radio and Tea Party crowd that Romney has had to engage in must be a distasteful prospect. Bush’s comments reveal a desire to maintain a level of respectability among political elites—there’s nothing elites like more than someone willing to speak out against the base of his own party—leaving open his choice of lobbying, consulting, media, corporate, or academic gigs. And if the GOP swings back to a place where he could seek higher office, so much the better.