Losing His Religion
Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series by Wilson on the Republican party.
ELEVEN MONTHS AGO, George Bush was on top of the political world. Flushed with a dazzling success in the Gulf, the Commander in Chief reaped popularity ratings of 89 percent (according to Gallup), the highest since such polls have been taken.
Within months, Senators John D. Rockefeller IV and Albert Gore Jr. '69 and Representative Richard A. Gephardt--the heavy hitters of the Democratic party--spared us the vicissitudes of Cuomo-esque posturing and bowed out under the assumption that Bush could not be beaten. The country seemed destined for five more years of Dana Carvey's gesticulating impressions.
My, how times change. An already weak economy plunged into a recessionary "freefall" (Bush's own term). United Nations investigators found that Saddam Hussein, entrenched as ever, still possessed nuclear technology. And voters increasingly demanded attention to domestic affairs and questioned Bush's leadership abilities.
A host of second-tier Democrats joined Paul E. Tsongas, the seemingly quixotic candidate who would prove to be astute in predicting the Bush decline. Bush's disapproval ratings, once in the single digits, swiftly spiraled upward.
And just when things seemed bad enough, Patrick J. Buchanan, darling of the right wing, entered the fray. Suddenly, Bush faced the growing likelihood of an early retirement.
The threat to Bush from a fellow Republican should not be written off. Four times since World War II, an incumbent president has faced a strong challenger from within his own party. The incumbent failed to return to the Oval Office in each of these cases.
In 1952, the irascible Harry S Truman was hammered by Estes Kefauver in New Hampshire and faced an even stronger challenge from Adlai E. Stevenson, forcing Truman to call it quits. LBJ met the same fate in 1968 when "Clean" Gene McCarthy captured 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, giving Robert F. Kennedy '48 a reason to drop his hat into the ring.
Two incumbents survived longer, only to lose in the general election. Gerald R. Ford, bruised and battered from a tough campaign against Ronald Reagan, could not hold on to the presidency in 1976. The winner of that race, Jimmy Carter, met the same fate four years later, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 made another foray into presidential politics.
In the last four decades, no candidate who has lost the New Hampshire primary has gone on to be elected president. Not one. And if any state can be expected to be unhappy with Bush, it is New Hampshire.
New Hampshire's economy is one of the most depressed in the nation. Voter disenchantment generated by such economic hard times is a powerful tool that can be wielded by Bush opponents. In addition, New Hampshire voters feel the president has betrayed them.
As Bush, former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu and a number of political pundits have argued, Bush's 1988 primary win in the Granite State played a critical role in securing him the Republican nomination.
He won over New Hampshire voters, of course, with his now (in)famous "no new taxes" pledge. Bush's popular vow proved too much for Sen. Robert Dole, who waffled on the same issue, and soon threw in the towel and headed back to Kansas. Nevertheless, Bush later abandoned his most sacred political pledge, a promise whose appeal had rescued him from the snowdrifts of New Hampshire.
WHILE BUSH, then, is clearly more vulnerable now than could have been imagined one year ago, I am not about to argue that his weaknesses are severe enough to open the door for a Democratic administration. Bush has yet to play all the cards in his hand.
The Republican campaign team, which he is only beginning to deploy, boasts success in five of the last six presidential elections. In the coming months, he can turn to attack America's number one whipping boy, the U.S. Congress (and, by association, its Democratic majorities), for hardly considering his proposals on education, housing, energy and the capital gains tax cut.
Also in Bush's favor is the widely predicted economic recovery--expected to arrive some time during the primary season--that will placate the electorate's greatest concerns. The proposals forwarded in the State of the Union address illustrate Bush's new focus on domestic policy concerns.
In any case, the Republican electoral lock gives Bush a leg up on the competition. In each of the last six presidential elections, 23 states, accounting for 203 electoral votes, have sided with the GOP. Bush's position and party affiliation spell tough times for any Democratic challengers.
Bush's chances are boosted even more by Democratic weakness. Only when faced with the alternative of "an unnamed Democrat" do many voters opt to abandon Bush. Lightweights such as Gov. Bill Clinton, Sen. Bob Kerrey and Tsongas have failed to whet the appetite of the electorate.
And when polls show that perennial noncandidate Mario M. Cuomo, the besieged governor of New York who can do little more than deliver a good speech, still garners more votes than any of the declared candidates, prospects look bleak for the Democrats.
STILL, WHILE THE DEMOCRATS will lose in November, a significant hole exists on Bush's ideological right. First, the Republican primary process is guided by its conservative wing. Just as in the Democratic party, individuals on the extremes are more likely to be involved in the primary process, and, therefore conservatives play a substantial role in the selection of the Republican presidential nominee.
Conservatives have never felt comfortable with George Bush. The man who, in 1980, was in favor of abortion rights and a critic of Reagan's economic policy, which he termed "voodoo economics," has never truly held the support of the Right. The last four years have served to vindicate those fears.
Bush has retreated on conservative positions on issues. For example, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is at its highest level ever. Conservatives have long opposed the NEA's grants process, which provides financing for many projects the Right finds objectionable. In addition, Bush has also departed from traditional conservative support for Israel.
He did not rush to support the right of self-determination for the people of the Baltics or the remainder of the former Soviet Union, for Croatia and Slovenia, or for the Kurds. He has continued to coddle China, despite the fact that over one billion people are without virtually any political or economic liberty and despite that government's continuing practice of questionable foreign arms sales.
All of these policies, along with a number of others, have alienated an overwhelming number of conservatives within the Republican party. But even this alienation may not have been politically fatal to Bush's constituency. What is even more tragic for Bush's candidacy is his alienation of fiscal conservatives as well.
These anti-tax, anti-big spending voters--both Democratic and Republican--formed the core of the Reagan-Bush coalition. Bush's broken pledge on taxes damages this coalition more than any other deviation from the conservative agenda. A second strike against Bush is the 10 percent average annual increase in budget expenditures that have occurred in each year of his administration. These increases represent the fastest rate of spending growth since the FDR years.
The ensuing mega-deficit has done nothing to help the economy or to soothe conservatives' anxiety. Finally, Bush is considered by many to be the "re-regulation king." Some consider his administration's increased regulation to be responsible for decreasing corporate competitiveness.
Bush's greatest vulnerabilities, then, are with the same Republican voters who elected him in 1988 (but who also defeated him in 1980).
GEORGE BUSH, seemingly fraught with a number of electoral and policy challenges, is weak even within his own party. And with good reason. George Bush, in many ways, has courted his own disaster. He has abandoned his major campaign plank, the continuation of Reaganism and, more specifically, "no new taxes."
He squandered the political capital he gained from the Gulf War by not spending time on the domestic front. In short, he has lost every opportunity for gain that has been presented to him. Now, he has gained an enormous opportunity for loss.
Harry James Wilson '93, a Crimson editor, was president of the Harvard Republican Club last year.