April 25, 2013

As Greg noted earlier this morning, the Republican Party’s attempted makeover is hampered by its devotion to austerity. Republicans are stuck between their rhetoric — we can cut spending, cut taxes, reduce the deficit, and grow the economy — and the reality, which is that spending cuts hurt ordinary people and alienate potential supporters.

It’s fitting, then, that today is also the grand opening of the George W. Bush presidential library, providing Washington a chance to reevaluate the eight years of his administration. The overall record is ugly: Economic and regulatory mismanagement, two failed wars, a flooded city, environmental negligence. On the other hand, Bush made several positive strides during his tenure. He pushed for comprehensive immigration reform — and the current bill is a descendent of his original proposal — he spent billions fighting AIDS in Africa, he implemented a popular prescription drug benefit for seniors, and he used his presidential campaigns to make active outreach to African Americans and Latinos, with positive results: He won a historic share Hispanic voters, and improved his position with blacks.

All of this is worth noting because it highlights the odd trajectory of the GOP since Bush left office. Rather than abandon the unpopular parts of the Bush agenda — wars, a relentlessly pro-business bias — Republicans have embraced them, digging in on upper-income tax cuts, and ramping up the push for fewer regulations and a thinner safety net. At the same time, they’ve — until recently — abandoned Bush’s attempts at minority outreach.

What’s more, today’s Republican Party has abandoned a key aspect of Bushism: The former president’s rhetorical emphasis on the idea that government can improve people’s lives. Bush’s embrace of “compassionate conservatism” may have been widely dismissed as empty rhetoric, but in truth, it’s important to affirm a positive role for government. Instead, today’s GOP has turned on the whole idea that government can be a force for good. Today’s Republican Party remains in thrall to the pitiless economic libertarianism of the Tea Party.

Republicans are currently honoring Bush. But if they honored that aspect of his legacy, the GOP might open itself to new policies and approaches that could benefit ordinary people. Yes, it would require a fundamental rethinking of conservatism, but that’s not outside the realm of possibility. Republicans pushing immigration reform, in fact, are taking a step in this direction.

It’s ironic, but the same George W. Bush who pushed the GOP into a downward spiral of unpopularity might be the one who can rescue it.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.