The Republican primary contest has come down to a choice between Mitt Romney and the anti-Romney. It is another in a series of battles between the non-conservative and conservative wings of the GOP. Arguably, the political seeds of today’s Republican schism were planted in 1966 when Ronald Reagan became governor of California and George Herbert Walker Bush became a congressman from Texas. Their political heirs have been contending for the soul of the Republican Party ever since.
In 1966, Reagan and the elder Bush became recognized nationally by opinion leaders, activists, and—especially in the case of Reagan—the general public. Reagan went on to win another term as governor while Bush lost a Senate race in 1970. Reagan gained the national stage as a conservative leader, while Bush retreated to competent stints as an envoy to China, a U.N. ambassador, and CIA director. By 1976 Reagan challenged George Bush’s boss, President Gerald Ford. Reagan’s conservative bona fides were established while Bush’s establishment credentials cemented.
The two men came to political blows in 1980. Reagan advocated supply-side economics to address the tax code and stagnant economy. Bush derided Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.” Reagan’s nomination settled their battle, and their alliance was sealed when the victor offered Bush the vice presidential nomination. The election set the Republican Party stage as a decades-long struggle between the Reagan and Bush factions.
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After Reagan’s two-term presidency, Bush presented himself to a skeptical and divided conservative electorate as the nominee promising a kinder, gentler America. His non-conservative instincts surfaced as he violated his “no new taxes” pledge and muddled through a domestic program and a recession with no real political narrative or Reagan-style economic growth policy. Conservatives were not happy and liberals did not endorse the kinder, gentler record. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, garnering a mere 38 percent of the vote.
Clinton’s healthcare proposal and leftist excesses led to Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. Gingrich challenged the establishment congressional Republicans and the Bush presidency—and functionaries like John Sununu, who now supports Mitt Romney—by refusing to accept a tax deal, which violated Bush’s own pledge. Gingrich vigorously opposed President Clinton and executed a strategy to regain control of the Congress and the conservative agenda. The historic 1994 Republican victory corrected the muddle of the first Bush presidency and captured control of Congress under Gingrich’s leadership. 1994 was also significant because of the emergence of three other figures: After repudiating the Reagan era, Mitt Romney lost a Senate race in Massachusetts, George W. Bush won the governorship of Texas, and Rick Santorum won a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
The kinder, gentler instincts of the elder Bush morphed into the compassionate conservatism of the younger Bush. Bush the younger became the Republican nominee for president; and though failing to win the popular vote, he defeated Vice President Al Gore in 2000. In 2002, Mitt Romney barely stumbled into the governorship of Massachusetts and adopted as the centerpiece of his one-and-only term in office an individual mandate for health insurance coverage. At the same time, President Bush was advancing No Child Left Behind, the unfunded expansion of Medicare, increased federal spending, and Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve. Combined with nation building in two distant countries, the admirable War on Terror was lost to voters, leading to catastrophic losses for the GOP in 2006 (when Mitt Romney did not even bother running for another term and Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat) and again in 2008. Barack Obama became president on the back of a country weary of war and, much like the elder Bush, had no economic or political narrative.
Like 1994, the Republican grassroots reacted to the Obama excesses, and again won historic victories in 2010. But yet again, the political heirs of George Bush muddled the victory. Gone are the strong and principled opposition to Obamacare, the failed stimulus and fundamental fiscal-reform efforts. Instead, the party of Bush is engaging in small, inconsequential turf wars over two-month tax extensions, is close to nominating a candidate for president who supported an individual mandate, and is forcing the heirs of Reagan to accept a nominee for president who rejected Reagan and his revolution.
2012 is 1996 all over again. The party may be nominating another candidate with neither vision nor fixed values. Expect a Dukakis-style campaign of competency and management. Like Clinton, Obama will prevail and the heirs of Bush will lead the Republican Party to an unnecessary defeat.
Will history repeat itself? The party of Bush appears ready to anoint Governor Romney. But will the party of Reagan stand by his side? This time, perhaps not.
The 1966 seeds sown between Reagan and Bush cast a long shadow.