In the Shadow of Bush

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, January 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

In the Shadow of Bush

Thomas, Evan, Newsweek

Byline: Evan Thomas; With Holly Bailey, Suzanne Smalley, Pat Wingert, Sarah Elkins And Sarah Kliff

The president has left his party in a precarious state. But the GOP candidates running in the wake of his wreckage can learn much from his failures.

We are all stars in the movies that play in our minds: not true-life stories, exactly, but life as we imagine it could or should be. Little imperfections are conveniently forgotten or smoothed over, messy relationships

downplayed or deep-sixed. The future beckons brightly, even if the past was dark or dreary. This need to believe in an idealized self is especially strong in politicians. They must get up every day and sell a vision--fanciful, perhaps, but inspiring: Morning in America, or a Bridge to the 21st Century, a New Frontier or a New Deal. To fulfill these myths, our leaders must be Born in a Log Cabin, or be the Man From Hope, or Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick. A certain amount of hooey is tolerated, even required. In real life, Teddy Roosevelt didn't speak softly at all. He more often brayed like a donkey. But he could make people listen out of fear and respect.

The modern Republican Party has indulged in more than a little mythmaking during the past 30 or 40 years. Its greatest hero was a Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. Morning in America was a brilliant bit of feel-good theatricality. Still, the GOP's core ideology--lower taxes, stronger defense, conservative social values--was a story that voters could follow. The GOP's long ascendancy in American politics was based on performance, not just showmanship.

President George W. Bush has squandered that trust. His presidency has been, in essence, faith-based--not just faith in God, but faith in Bush. After 9/11, he asked the nation to invest in his narrative of good versus evil. He seemed to be saying, "I'm taking care of this, you have to trust me." Critics and naysayers were scorned as ditherers or cowards. Bush wanted to appear resolute, but at times he just seemed bullheaded and oblivious. As Jacob Weisberg shows in the following excerpts from his new book, "The Bush Tragedy," the president constantly changed his rationale for invading Iraq--indeed his entire foreign policy--as inconvenient facts popped up or the mood moved him. Other crises, like Hurricane Katrina and more recently the sinking economy, seemed to catch him by surprise.

The Democrats have a fundamental advantage in 2008: none of them is George W. Bush. Whether promoting experience or change or populism, none of the Democrats can ever be the heir to the current president's legacy. For the Republicans, the matter is more complicated. The candidates are generally careful not to publicly disavow the president while scuttling away from his record. Mitt Romney is a case in point. Last Tuesday night, after he won the Michigan primary, Romney fulsomely praised Reagan and George H.W. Bush--but never mentioned the current president. Romney does somewhat limply praise the commander in chief for "keeping us safe for the last six years," but by making a hero out of Bush's father, Romney seems to be signaling that the elder Bush was the smart one when he decided not to march on to Baghdad in 1991. Romney does need the Bush family; he depends on former governor Jeb Bush's political network in Florida, though a Romney spokesman says Jeb himself "doesn't strategize with us." Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager, Michael DuHaime, insists to NEWSWEEK that his boss "refuses to pile on" the president. But one story you don't hear Giuliani repeat now is how, on 9/11, he grabbed the arm of his then New York City police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, and said, "Thank God George Bush is our president." As the choice of many evangelical voters, Mike Huckabee has no need to woo Bush's base, and he goes farthest in dissing the president. In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, he accused Bush of having an "arrogant bunker mentality" on foreign policy, and has said, "I'm not trying to run for a third Bush term. …

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