When the Republicans gathered in Tampa last month, the convention turned out to be as much an exorcism as it was a campaign kick-off. Now, six weeks out from the election, as presidential hopeful Mitt Romney struggles from gaffe to gaffe, the GOP might well consider putting in a call to Ghostbusters.
In his address to GOP convention delegates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush deftly pivoted away from brother George’s near universal unpopularity at the end of his term by criticizing President Barack Obama’s mixed results in remedying the wrecked economy “W” bequeathed him.
“My grandfather and my father have been incredible role models for me and served our country honorably,” Bush said with pride. He continued with a shrug and a grin to fill the awkward gap in the Bush family tree. “And my brother … well, I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times he kept us safe. So Mr. President, it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies.”
The filial embrace and simultaneous ‘What can I say?’ dismissal of his brother’s failures was both artful and necessary. The crowd loved it.
As Democrats have struggled in a dismal economy to make a credible case for a second Obama term, the Republican Party has struggled to throw off the Bush legacy and reinvent itself into a coherent alternative. If they are successful, Republicans will have expunged the relevance, if not the memory, of George W. Bush’s presidency among the American electorate, transforming his legacy from he who shall not be mentioned to the patriot who kept us safe.
But the ghost of George W. Bush’s failures is not the only exorcism that a successful Romney-Ryan run needs to achieve. The homage paid from Tampa to generational immigrant stories, women, African-Americans and Hispanics was an implicit acknowledgement that as the electorate becomes increasingly younger, less white and less socially conservative, demographics do not favor the current Republican Party long term. If the ticket falls short, other ghosts, driven into the shadows by bright campaign lights, will come back to haunt the party. And, ironically, they’re all named George.
The Ghost of Republican Moderates: First is George Romney, Mitt’s father and role model – a socially moderate Republican from the industrial Midwest, a businessman turned politician who fit the mid 20th-century mold of small-town middle America that the party still celebrates as its tap root. But George Romney’s moderate politics would be a non-starter in today’s Republican Party – he’d never survive the nominating process. No fool, son Mitt morphed from a moderate New England Republican, discovering his “severely conservative” outlook to win the GOP nomination.
If Romney wins, he paves a path for other former moderates to convert rather than retire. If he loses, the narrative will be that he was not conservative enough and the purge of moderates will accelerate. But unless they plan a massive re-education of the American electorate, the larger question remains: Can the Republican Party maintain numerical viability if membership is gated by its most socially conservative elements?
The Ghost of Voodoo Economics: George H.W. Bush, who coined the term in his unsuccessful primary run against Ronald Reagan, remains Exhibit A, reminding Republicans they cannot survive without bending to the “no tax increase” enforcers. The senior Bush’s 1988 convention acceptance speech pledged: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Once elected however, Bush compromised with a Democratic Congress to reduce the budget deficit (also a Republican virtue but not as virtuous as The Pledge) by raising revenue. His decision, thrown back at him in the primaries, opened a third-party challenge from Ross Perot, contributing to his defeat by Bill Clinton.
Calls for fiscal responsibility, a balanced budget and smaller government remain standard Republican platform planks, nailed tight with the “no-tax-increase” pledge. And they’re correct in the proposition that eventually, math will catch up with us all. It’s just that their math doesn’t add up any better than the Democrats’.
The simultaneous call for increasing the Pentagon budget while extending the Bush tax cuts, repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement, coupled with a vague U-turn pledge to protect Medicare cannot get through the “no-tax-increase” knothole. Their credibility is further undermined by protestations about a slipping credit rating when it was the Republican Congress’ threat to default that led to the downgrade. Add on VP nominee Paul Ryan’s cynical criticism of Obama’s failure to adopt the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, when he, Ryan, voted against it, and one might conclude the GOP can’t add and subtract.
The Ghost of the Southern Strategy: Then there is the ghost of George Wallace hanging over the party. Though Wallace was a segregationist Democratic governor of Alabama, he showed the Republicans the path to the White House through the South and white working-class voters who had traditionally leaned Democratic. While the Republican Party now pays homage to civil-rights heroes and talks about inclusiveness as it showcases African-American and Hispanic Republicans, its well-orchestrated efforts to limit ballot access through voter ID laws cynically channel the darkest side of American politics.
So if the GOP wants to put these ghosts back into the shadows, at least for a while, a Romney-Ryan win is important.
Brad Allen has worked as a journalist in both the general and business press, including contributing business articles to MinnPost. He has spent much of his professional life on the corporate side, particularly in investor relations for technology companies. He also consults with public companies on their dealings with Wall Street and is a contributor to financial publications, writing about the capital markets.
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