GOP Appears Ready to Move Beyond Bush

President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush addressed the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, exciting a crowd of thousands gathered in St. Paul, Minnesota. Video by AP
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- When George W. Bush's image was beamed inside the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night, the Republican faithful roared in appreciation of the man who led them to victory in the past two presidential elections. But the party's titular leader has been largely an afterthought for Republicans this week, the speech from the White House not even carried on network television after his originally scheduled appearance Monday night was washed out by Hurricane Gustav.

The way things happened may reflect some of the ambivalence that Bush's party -- and Sen. John McCain's advisers -- feel about the president. While many delegates largely respect Bush for his values and wartime leadership, he has bequeathed McCain a difficult political landscape that practically demands that the senator from Arizona run a campaign distancing himself from the Bush administration.

By almost every objective standard, Bush will leave his party worse off than it was when he was nominated eight years ago in Philadelphia. During his tenure, the GOP lost control of Congress and its dominance of statehouses slipped while losing about 200 seats in state legislatures. More than half of registered voters now identify themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents -- a tilt that is significantly more Democratic than at this time in any of the past three presidential election cycles. And Republicans enter the final stretch of the campaign season at a substantial financial disadvantage compared with their rivals.

A McCain victory could radically change this picture. But every bit of evidence suggests that Bush and longtime political adviser Karl Rove were unable to achieve their ambitious and long-held objectives of expanding the GOP base and creating a durable Republican majority. Their hope of ending traditional Democratic dominance on such issues as health care (with a new Medicare prescription drug plan) and education (with the No Child Left Behind law) while growing the GOP tent to include more Latinos and African Americans has all but ended. Younger voters are fleeing the GOP in droves, prompting fears that if there is a party realignment, it probably will be a Democratic one. The Iraq war, meanwhile, has eroded the Republicans' traditional advantage on national security issues.

If McCain defeats Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in November, he will be sailing against very strong headwinds. "We're in the worst political environment for Republicans since Nixon," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. In describing what the candidate will say in his acceptance speech this week, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally, said he outlined this succinct message Tuesday: "Wake up. We are a party in retreat, and we need to regroup, change the way we do business."

In an interview last week, Rove took exception to this dismal view. "Please tell me why we are facing a presidential election that is dead even," he said. "No picture is completely good or completely bad -- and the fact the GOP nominee is competitive is both a testament to Senator McCain and a sign the GOP can now fight in a tough environment."

Rove argued that Bush began to reposition the Republican Party on domestic issues such as health care, Social Security, immigration, education and a new prescription drug program for Medicare. "He has worked hard to modernize the party, to reinvigorate its grass-roots activities, to encourage a diverse and forward-looking group of conservative candidates, and to make sure the party is amply funded to undertake its work," Rove said. "He has changed the mind-set of the party so it can be more effective in whatever political climate it finds itself."

Overhauling the GOP's image from that created by the ideologically driven congressional Republicans of the 1990s was high among the priorities for Bush and Rove after the former won the presidency in 2000. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum recalls the first meeting he attended with Bush in 2001, when he said the new president told the group that he "wanted to change the party."

That meant, in large measure, trying to bring Hispanics into the GOP, something Bush did when he was governor of Texas. That meant appealing to soccer moms and disaffected Democrats with a new emphasis on education reform. It meant trying to tap into a new "investor class" of stock owners with a plan to create personal accounts in Social Security. It also meant focusing resources on building the GOP's capacity to get out the vote among Christian evangelicals and other grass-roots supporters.

Bush had considerable political success for his first four years, helping his party pick up seats in the 2002 midterm elections, largely on the strength of his anti-terrorism message after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He won reelection in 2004, expanding his share of the Hispanic vote.

Even Democrats thought Bush might be on his way to the kind of party realignment Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved in 1936 or William McKinley in 1896. "You can make a pretty strong case that the reason George Bush won the presidency and reelection in 2004 was their instinctual understanding of the importance of the Hispanic vote," said Fernand Amandi, a Florida pollster who focuses on the Latino vote.

But by 2006, progress with Hispanics was halted because of the divisive congressional debate over immigration. Bush was unable to tamp down the vociferous complaints in the GOP that portrayed his plans to provide a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants as tantamount to amnesty. "The gambit to reach out to new constituencies has by and large failed, and we don't have impressive results to tell the American people," said Frum, who wrote one of the first insider accounts of the White House under Bush.

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