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Bushism Killed Reaganism

Tom Ricks is partly right when he writes this:

I don’t think Obama killed the Reagan revolution. I think it was getting old — it had lasted nearly three decades. But I think the Reagan influence effectively was killed by President Bush’s lengthy Iraq war, which proved so expensive that it was no longer possible to transfer wealth to the rich at the Reagan-era rate without running up huge deficits.

What Ricks gets right here is that Bush was responsible for bringing an end to the era of national conservative and Republican political ascendancy that began with Reagan. The Iraq war was a large part of why that ascendancy ended, but it was not the only cause. As I mentioned in the post yesterday, the Bush-era GOP failed and was seen to have failed across the board. Reagan’s policies came to be associated with economic recovery and overall foreign policy competence, and on both counts Bush’s policies trashed his party’s reputation as trustworthy stewards.

The Iraq war was expensive in many ways, but the expense of that unnecessary war by itself was not what wrecked Bush’s presidency or the GOP’s political fortunes. What made the expense and the casualties so outrageous was that there had been no good reason for the war, the official justifications for the war were all bogus, the management of the war was so inept, and Republican boosters of the war remained oblivious to all of this for years. The Iraq war did so much damage to the Republican reputation for competence on matters of national security and foreign policy because it inflicted serious damage to U.S. interests rather than advancing them. The war represented a significant departure from the conduct of previous Republican administrations, it went horribly wrong, and to this day many Republican leaders still imagine that it was a success. If there was one thing that Republicans were supposed to be good at, it was in the effective and careful stewardship of U.S. foreign policy, and Bush threw all of that away in a few years while his supporters cheered him on.

Bushism was not simply the reckless and aggressive foreign policy that most people identify with it. It was also supposed to represent a “reform” of Reaganism comparable to what Clinton had done for the Democrats and Blair had done for Labour, and it was defined by the Republican embrace of government intervention and the expansion of the size and role of the federal government into areas that Republicans had previously considered unacceptable. Bushism was intended as a modernization of Reaganism, but it mainly succeeded only in copying the least desirable features of Reagan’s tenure, such as exploding deficits and increased military spending. As a final blow, Bush presided over the beginning of a huge financial and economic calamity.

As Bushism replaced and in some respects repudiated Reaganism, it also destroyed the public’s confidence in Republican governance. The truth is that Bushism had killed Reaganism years before Obama started his first presidential campaign. When Bushism tried to replace Reaganism as the glue of a new political coalition, it ended up shattering the old coalition instead.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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