For a decade and a half, Republicans have stifled internal debates about the George W. Bush presidency. They have preserved a more or less common front, by the more or less agreed upon device of not looking backward, not talking candidly, and focusing all their accumulated anger on the figure of Obama. The Trump candidacy has smashed all those coping mechanisms. Everything that was suppressed has been exposed, everything that went unsaid is being shouted aloud—and all before a jeering live audience, as angry itself as any of the angry men on the platform.
It’s not quite true that all of these things have gone unsaid for all this time. Dissenting Republicans and conservatives have been saying some version of them for the last fifteen years, and on some issues for much longer than that, but party and movement leaders weren’t interested in hearing any of it. On the contrary, they were determined to squelch internal debate and demonize those that made awkward and embarrassing criticisms of Bush and his allies from the right. The point is that there were plenty of opportunities in the last decade for the GOP and conservative movement to acknowledge the colossal errors of the Bush years and to try to learn from them, but their leaders were committed to making excuses and rationalizations for Bush-era failures long after Bush left office.
Republicans told themselves that the electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008 were flukes or simply the result of “wasteful spending,” which naturally didn’t include the trillions being wasted in an unnecessary foreign war. The fantasy that the “surge” was a great success was another way to avoid thinking about how disastrous and costly the war had been. Many Republicans took for granted that Bush had “won” the war by the end of his presidency, which was even more absurd but extremely convenient for the war’s supporters. Midterm victories in 2010 and 2014 helped the party to avoid reckoning with the toxic Bush legacy a little longer. The last two presidential nominees were either identified closely with major parts of Bush’s agenda or had no substantial disagreements with most of it. Each time the GOP could have repudiated Bush, it mostly chose to reaffirm support for him and what he had done. That they chose to do this year after year is all the more bizarre when one remembers that Bush left office with one of the lowest approval ratings of all time. The more that the country rejected Bush, the more desperately party and movement leaders clung to him and ensured that his toxicity would continue to poison the party for many more years.
In his own hapless way, Jeb Bush forced the issue by running for president. He made all of his brother’s failures fair game for criticism from the other candidates when he insisted on defending his brother’s record. Because Jeb Bush has been one of the more vocal opponents of Trump, he encouraged Trump to become the most vocally anti-Bush Republican in the field. The Bush dynasty is fortunately coming to an end, but not before one of its members unwittingly created the opening for Republicans to have the debate about the disastrous Bush administration that they have avoided having for ten years.