Thursday, March 20, 2008

Perlstein and the Bush Legacy

Polls show George W Bush has had dismal approval ratings for years and years. A lot of this has to do with Iraq, a war of choice started on false pretenses. But with the economy going south, no amount of good news they can rake from the sands of Iraq can save the Bush presidency.

So what will conservatives do to save their movement? After all, conservatism can never fail; it can only be failed. Will they rescue Bush's reputation? Or will they throw him under the bus to save conservatism? Amputate the limb to save the body, so to speak.

Rick Perlstein looks a Reagan's legacy. At one point, he was on the ropes, during Iran-Contra. but he finished his tenure at 63% approval, solidifying his position as the saint of the modern conservative movement.

What will they do about Bush. Perstein speculates:

What if... there had been no Reagan Rebound? What if progressives had thought ahead and launched a concerted campaign to keep Reagan's negatives down, where they deserved to be, of course, in the first place?

No President George H.W. Bush, certainly.

But even better. No headlines, in 1994, like "Reagan Name a Great Tool for Election"—and no chance of Newt Gingrich drafting off the public's vague perception that being called a "Reaganite" was a desirable thing, all the way to the conservative takeover of Congress. No headlines, like the ones in 2000, reading, "Bush: I'm Ronald Reagan's Heir."

Because the pathetic fumes of vestigial Reagan worship are the only card they truly have to play. We cannot give them the opportunity to play that card with Bush. We also can't let them get away with claiming Bush was somehow a betrayer of conservatism. If they do, conservatism can live to fight another day. "Don't like Bush? Doesn't matter. He wasn't a conservative. Conservatism is still the greatest thing since oven-fresh baguettes. We got rid of Bush, so now we can move on to a true conservative."

I have a problem with one of the premises in this post, though. Lemme explain.

Not that conservatives haven't mastered the art of cognitive dissonance, I have a hard time believing that the GOP will simultaneously try to rescue the legacy of George W Bush and throw him under the bus in order to save conservativism. Here's how I see it playing out.

We all know that the GOP is a coalition but one that is exceptionally hierarchical. They have an amazing capacity to maintain a unified message. My guess is that they will, initially, try to burnish the Bush legacy. But they probably will, and probably have already decided that it's futile save Bush. His reputation is already too far down the toilet, and it's only going to get worse as the economy slips further into recession, especially as job losses increase, as foreclosures skyrocket, as home prices crash, as gas prices soar, as the dollar weakens, etc, etc. He's toast, and they know it.

I think they've already started to cut him loose from the conservative movement. They know the tides are running against the GOP this year, and that McCain will probably lose by a lot. If McCain goes down in flames, expect them to hitch Bush to him as an anchor. "They" will have betrayed conservatism, and that's why "they" lost.

I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for examples of the GOP playing the "Bush betrayed us" card. My guess is that it's their only hope. There's no way Bush is going to end up with approval ratings higher that 50%, and I'd be shocked if they end up anywhere close to 40%. There's just no way they're turning the economy around in time, and that is the one issue that truly affects everybody. Look for updates on my blog.

Still, any effort to hitch Bush to the conservative movement is absolutely worthwhile. He's their albatross, and they will do their best to hide him from the public. It's our job to make sure the facts of the last eight years aren't erased from the national record. And the fact is that Bush is perfect exemplar of modern American conservatism.

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