Why the Republicans failed

December 2000 was a heady time for Republicans. After the Supreme Court ruled that Florida votes need not be recounted and the election as certified would stand, it was clear that the GOP had a majority in Congress and the held the Presidency. Despite a short loss of a Senate majority in 2001-02, it appeared the decade would belong to the Republicans.

And they had ideas. To the problems facing the United States President Bush offered a solution: the opportunity society. With the budget now in balance, he argued, the US could move towards helping Americans take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This included privatizing social security (after all, the stock market had been soaring, why not allow people to put their money there?), re-writing the tax code, altering social welfare programs to focus on getting people trained for work, and nothing short of creating an American alternative to the European social welfare state.

While I am very skeptical that all this could have worked — I think most people are glad they weren’t putting their social security money in the stock market he last eight years, for instance — give President Bush his due: He had plans for real reform. The GOP had a vision for an America with less government, more individual responsibility, and balanced budgets. All of this, they argued, would be paid for by projected budget surpluses. Having too much of a surplus or paying down the debt too fast would be dangerous, but that money could be used to create a transition to this new economy.

Eight years later few remember that President Bush was elected on this notion of individual responsibility and ‘compassionate conservatism.’ Almost none of what the Republicans set out to do was accomplished. Despite having a majority in Congress and holding the Presidency, most of their bold domestic agenda failed. Why?

Part of the reason, of course, is conditions beyond their control. The budget surplus projections were bogus, ignoring the fact that the balanced budget and the economic optimism of 2000 was build on a stock market bubble which already had burst. Even their belief they could remake the Supreme Court failed, as liberal justices refused to quit, leaving Bush with the task of only replacing two GOP appointees. The Democrats became effective at using the filibuster in the Senate to stop action on many Bush plans, and by 2006 the Republicans were on the rocks, and now the Democrats are poised to be where the GOP was in 2000 — at the head of government.

For the Democrats to succeed, they need to understand why the Republicans failed. And the reason is clear: Iraq. The most dramatic political casualty of the Iraq war was the Republican agenda. After getting early tax cuts passed, Bush could get little significant legislation through Congress afterwards. Major legislation passed would instead be things like the Patriot Act, passed in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

9-11 and its aftermath was a pivotal point for President Bush. At the height of his popularity, with a country suddenly unified, and liberal dissent considered almost treasonous by many, he had the chance to build on a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan to bring the country around to his view of the future. With the property bubble replacing the stock market bubble, the economy actually appeared in much better shape than it was. This meant that Bush could remain popular, and the GOP could provide a coherent message about their plan for the future. If the President had handled events post-9-11 differently, we might be looking at a very different political landscape. The Democrats may not have had the will to sustain Senate filibusters if Bush had remained popular, the GOP majority may have continued to grow, and the President might now be talking openly of the new “opportunity society,” complete with private social security accounts, and major reform of the tax code and social welfare system. We’d be debating the long term consequences of these actions, and the Democrats might seem to be representing the ‘failed policies of the past,’ while the Republicans were innovative and different.

Instead, the decision to invade Iraq dashed every Republican hope. It drained hundreds of billions from possible budgetary funds, meaning the deficit would grow and any effort to create a transition to a new tax, social security or social welfare system was infeasible. The President’s lack of popularity meant he couldn’t make a convincing case to the public for change, meaning that the Democrats paid no political cost for obstructing the GOP agenda — quite the contrary! The country became fixated on Iraq to the point that the phrase ‘opportunity society’ became virtually meaningless; instead of the center point of the Bush Presidency, it was simply a forgotten political slogan.

To those in the GOP who truly believe that less government and more free markets would work, this has to be very painful. They had the chance. They had the majority, the President was popular, their ideas intrigued the American public. The Democrats were on the defensive, especially after 9-11. For better or worse, they could have made their agenda political reality. Instead, the Administration engaged in a social engineering experiment in a post-Ottoman authoritarian state, believing if it removed the dictator they could engineer a stable pro-American democracy that would pressure other states in the region towards similar reform. The seductive illusion of this vision — US power not only protecting American oil interests but reshaping the Mideast into becoming more pro-western, less friendly to terrorists, and more amenable towards accepting Israel’s right to exist — caused Bush to gamble his Presidency. He lost.

If Iraq becomes stable the pro-war side will try to claim success. They’ll say it took longer, but say that ultimately Iraq emerged better off than under Saddam. They are already claiming we’re on the road there, though I strongly suspect that once again they’re miscalculating. The cost of the war in Iraqi lives lost, destruction of that society, and of course the loss of American lives and money is so enormous that there is no way the policy could possibly be a success, especially since it’s rationale was proven wrong and the region is even more hostile to US interests: Iraq was in many ways a gift to Islamic extremists, helping them recruit and fostering increase anti-Americanism.

After the Iraqi people, the biggest loser might be President Bush and the Republican party. They had their chance to reshape the American political landscape and engage in dramatic policy reform. They had the chance to experiment with cutting government and expanding markets, privatizing and putting their vision to test in the largest economy in the world. That chance won’t come again for a long time, if ever.

  1. #1 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 25, 2008 - 08:36

    I agree on all you said, however it is what you leave out that makes the difference: the declaration of war against the west. This was not a call for social engineering in an ‘Allahcracy’, but an urgent need to regain self respect and belief in a just world by a show of force in a best possibly regulated manner.

  2. #2 by scotterb on June 25, 2008 - 11:34

    Declaration of war against the West? Who did that? A small group of extremists, not the Iraqi government, or the Islamic world in general. Don’t collectivize to the many from the small minority! Focus on the extremists, don’t allow them to represent the Islamic world in general!

  3. #3 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 25, 2008 - 12:44

    All our thought and understanding is drowned in the totum pro parte format. You as a professor, even webmaster of World in Motion, should know that all that we believe, utter and enact, presupposes Verstehen, understanding, philosophy, culture, norms and values. If there is one royal road of getting to grips with that, it is by making the tangents accountable to their immediate environments and finally to us. That happens nowhere in the islamic world. “That is what he believes, not I, even when we are of the same culture” is a common deflection and resistance to social control to stay in power. If you want to capitulate, keep saying that to yourself!

  4. #4 by scotterb on June 25, 2008 - 17:06

    Maybe it’s my American individualism coming through, but I can’t see collective guilt — especially guilt for the actions of an extreme fringe — rationalizing violence and destruction of a culture or society, let alone innoncent individuals. That kind of thinking can work both ways; after all, Osama Bin Laden’s war on the West came because of the US decision to attack Iraq in 1991. So by that logic, the Americans killed on 9-11 were tangents accountable for the decisions made by their leaders? And, in fact, given the violent history of western civilization — holocaust, communist death camps, fascism, world wars, wars of reformation, use of A-bombs and fire bombing, inquisitions, colonialism, exploitation, slavery, etc. — are we really in a position to point fingers?

  5. #5 by xoites on June 25, 2008 - 18:41

    Repeal FISA is up and running. Anyone who wants to is welcome to sign up and become a blogger on it. The purpose of the blog is to organize a drive to repeal the FISA laws and all laws that pardon or give immunity from prosecution anyone who has violated the Constitution during the Bush Administration.

    That is why we want everyone to be able to Post so they can start a conversation about an idea they have to make this happen.

    Stop on by and check it out. By all means leave a comment and sign up to blog with us as we figure out what needs to be done to return our Fourth Amendment Rights and our rule of law.

    If you have a blog already and you become a poster we will link to your site.



  6. #6 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 26, 2008 - 13:08

    I think it isn’t the American individualism I know, for this is international socialism, making all the people in the world of one brand one big family, forgiving their little family tantrums and thus allowing oneself an occasional slip as well when push comes to shove. Nobody is innocent when everybody somehow is connected and to my best knowledge, Americans are the first to acknowledge that. Yes that makes us all accountable, but some, closer to knowingly causing it, more than others. That is why the history of western civilization supposedly is more violent than any other, the international socialist islamic friends in particular: keeping each other accountable and therefore independent, is 100% better than theocratizing and raping ones own society, ‘normalized’ and therefore acceptable for socialists and liberal democrats, apparently.

  7. #7 by scotterb on June 26, 2008 - 18:27

    Actually, since socialism is a collectivist ideology, making the collective responsible for anything its members do is closer to socialist than individualist. JFK said it is better that ten guilty go free than one innocent man suffer. I think collective guilt and the error of collectivization to rationalize violence is one of the most dangerous tendencies in human thought, one that was embraced especially by communists and fascists a like. I prefer to see culture more in a Burkean way, with traditions and customs defining a people, and with governance dependent upon that (Montesquieu also had some interesting ideas along those lines). That makes it difficult to judge other cultures by the standard of ones’ own culture (that causes both war and terrorism), and in any event, no individual has to be held accountable for criminal acts undertaken by others, just because they are from the same society (and how broadly does one define a society)? Just war theory is very clear that innocents should be protected, and defense against aggression should not turn into aggression itself. That fundamental part of the western tradition is very important, I think.

  8. #8 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 27, 2008 - 10:40

    First of all, I am not a socialist. Therefore the collective is not responsible but the (Burkean) individual, for what the collective does since responsibility is always lost in a collective (‘wir haben es nicht gewusst’). Collective guilt is a handy tool for self acclaimed and -serving leaders thriving on political correctness, multiculturalism, (national or international) socialism and moral and cultural relativism. Communism and fascism arose from irresponsible guilt. So we need to judge ourselves ànd each other, each other’s cultures and all that is wrong, coming from it. And we should do so not because we are from the same society, let alone different societies, but because we live in a common space with a common sense for common rules and regulations, trying to convince each other all the time.

  9. #9 by scotterb on June 27, 2008 - 16:39

    Is responsibility lost in a collective? Is not each individual responsible for the acts he or she took or didn’t take, and not responsible for acts taken by others? And how does one judge a culture? Is the West a violent, evil, materialist culture exploiting the planet and conquering others to expand its vision? Or is the West an enlightened culture wanting to support individual rights and freedom? Or could it be both? Might all cultures have diverse possibilities, with some individuals choosing one path, others choosing another? How does one even define a culture? This makes it really easy for one to simply put ones’ own values above those of a different culture and use that to rationalize acts that might otherwise be seen as wrong or even evil. That’s clearly the kind of thinking that motivated the perpetrators of 9-11, they believed they were acting for good against an evil, secular, soulless culture bent on exploiting them, enriching corrupt leaders, and threatening their identity. They rationalized evil in the guise of collective judgments. And while one may not like cultural relativism, you can’t just assume your culture is better because it is yours; you can’t just dismiss as relativist the reality that without a clear mode of judging, it’s just personal bias or preference.

  10. #10 by Ron C. de Weijze on June 28, 2008 - 01:53

    Responsibility is lost in a collective, by concentration and misuse of authority on the one hand and by group-polarization on the other.

    In a collective, authority is concentrated and easily misused, even by those not in power, by not feeling responsible. Not just on the state level but also in small groups. Perhaps even in dyads.

    In a collective, individual opinions about values and norms, are shifted in risky ways, toward extremes where they turn into extremism and terrorism. This is group-polarization.

    Individuals are responsible for their actions and non-actions, including those aimed at taking care for others and preventing them from committing atrocities. That is also how we judge others and should define ‘other cultures’.

    I like to believe the west isn’t the one or the other or all that. It is just what I want it to be and what I shall defend in my thoughts, words and behavior. I cannot make someone else think, say and feel the same but I can and will keep trying.

    All human beings are the same or, in my view, should try to be the same, and act the same if they were in each other’s shoes while only circumstances differ. If this were not the case, then and only then could we act as if we were as different as urang utangs are from people, or daisies, for that matter.

    There is no superiority of one person over another but there is an imperative to judge and correct each other, or let ourselves be convinced of the opposite and be judged and corrected ourselves. In a civilized manner, not through declarations of war.

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