Grand New Party Blogging: GNP and Dubya

After a lapse for the holidays, I finally got around to finishing Grand New Party. But instead of doing a full length review of the whole book, instead I think I’m going to do a series of posts, addressing specific sections and arguments in the book.

Obviously one of the biggest problems a conservative presuming to light the political path forward for the GOP is going to have is explaining away the Bush administration, and Douthat and Salam don’t necessarily shy away from it. But yet, trying to fit the Bush administration into their broader historical narrative of post New Deal America in favorable terms proves quite difficult, and the chapter on Bush yields the most egregious examples of flawed arguments, and outright hackery, in an otherwise strong, if sometimes dense, effort.

For example, the fundamental takeaway from the book’s examination of Bush is that, like Nixon, he had a lot of (mostly electoral) success, but he “executed” things poorly and ultimately proved unsuccessful, and unpopular. The trick for conservatives, apparently, is to build on these “successes,” while avoiding Bush’s mistakes. But the authors’ list of accomplishments is pretty thin gruel indeed.

Most notably, they give Bush credit for “more political victories than any conservative since Reagan.” While that’s true enough, I suppose, what’s more telling is the extent to which the 2006 elections are ignored. That’s a pretty important detail, because 2006, moreso than any of the 3 previous elections, was a landscape changing event. For the first time in the modern, 2 party era, one of the two major parties failed to flip one single seat in either House of Congress, and lost control of both chambers. When juxtaposed to the 2008 elections (which hadn’t happened yet at the time of publishing, obviously) it’s one of the most dramatic political shifts since the New Deal, and certainly the most dramatic since the end of World War II. But Douthat and Salam make little more than a passing reference to this, despite touting the electoral campaigns of 2000, 2002, and 2004 as major events Republicans ought to seek to emulate in the future.

Worse than that, however, is the way in which the authors seek to argue that their “Sam’s Club voters” really, really, loved George Bush. The most striking example is their claim that, in 2000, Bush “won the votes of white working class men by 29%, up from 8% for Bob Dole, but enjoyed only a 7% advantage among females in the Sam’s Club demographic.” Apparently ethnic minorities don’t shop at Sam’s Club, or D&S don’t want to incorporate non-whites into the equation. That seems like a pretty odd line to draw, given that a disproportionate number of minorities are on the lower end of the income spectrum, but it makes a certain amount of sense given that minorities are also disproportionately inclined to vote for Democrats, and so including them would undercut what becomes the authors’ contention that the George W. Bush of 2000 was a working class hero, moderate, “reformer” whose focus on things like education reform was crucial to beating back the quasi-socialists who were looking to push socialized medicine and ever more “income redistribution.”

To their credit, Douthat and Salam do seem to have a pretty good grasp on where Bush went wrong, even briefly attacking the common right-wing belief that the economy was always doing well under Bush, but that the media was burying this “story,” by ceding the idea that real income levels are at least as important as GDP growth and the Dow Jones to most people. But at the same time, Bush’s failures are so documented now that the list of failures is pretty boilerplate, and comes off feeling more like a requisite distancing from Bush than an actual concession that the policies Bush pursued were failures. Indeed, other than the Iraq war, Douthat and Salam write favorably about most of Bush’s more infamous initiatives, from No Child Left Behind and the tax cuts to Medicare Plan D and social security privatization. Rather, their conclusion seems to be not that any of these policies were unpopular, or failures, but that the public didn’t care about them, save for education, but that is apparently limited to the 2000 election.

Maybe it’s merely a testament to the sheer awfulness of Bush’s tenure that even seemingly good faith right-of-center efforts to address him, and to move on, inevitably come up in such weak fashion, but in any event, the dubious nature of both the conclusions and the arguments in this particular chapter of Grand New Party cast a pall over the authors, and on the underlying assumptions guiding the book.

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