Three years ago George W. Bush left office with the lowest exit approval rating in American presidential history. In January 2009, the United States was in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, engaged in two wars with no end in sight, and suffering a crisis of confidence. Americans, tired of President Bush’s leadership and the Republican Party, had voted for Barack Obama and strengthened Democratic majorities in Congress. Bush’s years in the White House had done great damage to the Republican brand, particularly with independents, who voted for Barack Obama by a 52-44 percentage point margin over John McCain. At the time, a debate within the Republican Party questioned whether to moderate or become more strictly conservative in an effort to rebuild the Republican name and win future elections. Polling of Republicans, not surprisingly, revealed a preference for the conservative route, while responses by independents were inconclusive. Democrats, of course, favored a path of moderation.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Republican Party has successfully been remade. Incredibly, the party has effectively distanced itself from Bush’s policies in just three short years by tacking to the right, which in many cases involved outright rejecting Bush era policy solutions. While intended to improve the party’s image, the changes should ultimately have the opposite effect on independents and, what’s more, lead both independents and Democrats to lament the absence of (the moderate?) President Bush in today’s Republican Party. To see the shift in the Republican Party in recent years, look no farther than the policy prescriptions offered by our current crop of Republican presidential candidates. Two policy arenas – immigration reform and campaign finance reform – provide particularly striking examples of this transformation.
The solution to our nation’s illegal immigration problem, for example, has become in essence a fence, but not just any fence – Michelle Bachmann proposed the construction of two fences back-to-back along the 2,000-mile border, while Herman Cain proposed building an electric fence to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. These candidates cannot in any way be described as “fringe” candidates in the Republican Party, which makes their solutions all the more alarming. Bachmann, while having dropped in the polls recently, won the coveted Ames straw poll in Iowa, and Cain leads or places second currently in most national polls. These two candidates with their extreme, and ultimately ineffective, policy solutions have (or did have) a shot at winning the presidency. Will our next president view the immigration problem as one that can be solved by a fence? Perhaps, as neither they nor the front-runner for the nomination, Mitt Romney, have offered ideas on how to handle undocumented workers already here in the United States – the essence of the immigration issue. Romney’s solution to illegal immigration consists of securing the border and cracking down on companies that hire illegal workers, paying no attention to what we do with the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Compare these positions to the sensible, albeit controversial, approach adopted by Bush in his second term. President Bush and the Republican and Democratic Senators who crafted the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 recognized something had to be done to both secure the border in an effort to prevent future illegal immigration and to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Of course, many Republicans (and Democrats) opposed the legislation and it eventually failed, but Bush’s support of the bill demonstrated Republicans could put aside ideology in favor of pragmatic solutions. Today, this pragmatism is lacking, ironically making George W. Bush, a man often seen as an ideologue with regards to taxes and foreign policy, look like a moderate.
Bush also stands out in comparison to the Republican presidential field on the issue of campaign finance reform. In 2002, he signed the McCain-Feingold Act into law, which limited individuals’ and corporations’ ability to donate large sums of money to campaigns. While Bush opposed the donation limits that affected individuals, he supported limits on corporate donations and ultimately signed the bill. Upon signing the bill, Bush stated, “Taken as a whole, this bill improves the current system of financing for federal campaigns, and therefore I have signed the law.” Bush saw the existing funding structure as a problem and did not allow the perfect, in his eyes, be the enemy of the good.
No 2012 Republican presidential candidate supports McCain-Feingold (with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman). Romney, while a supporter of campaign finance reform during his term as Governor of Massachusetts, is now a vehement opponent of McCain-Feingold arguing it limits free speech. Bachmann, as a member of Congress, sought to block criminal penalties for violators of the law. The current Republican Party has turned its back on campaign finance reform, supporting the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Campaign finance reform, a political issue that could find bipartisan consensus in the Bush years, has become a polarized debate between the two parties.
Through the evolution of both the immigration reform and campaign finance reform debates, in addition to a host of other issues, Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents have seen how Bush served as an adult figure in the Republican Party, centering it on key issues where finding solutions necessitated bipartisanship. Bush, once viewed as staunchly conservative and often seen as a divisive figure, should now, in hindsight, be seen in a more positive light by his former political adversaries. As the 2012 Republican presidential candidates’ reveal their policy proposals (or display their lack of policy gravitas), Americans, especially those in the political middle, should find themselves curiously missing the former President. This transformation of opinion on Bush is surely an indication of a massive political shift in the Republican Party and quite an incredible development in American politics. Could we actually be missing George W. Bush?