While he remains cryptic about his ultimate intentions, Jeb Bush has let America know that if he runs for president in 2016, he will do so by promising an administration that is “much more uplifting, much more positive, much more willing to be practical” – in short, the complete opposite of the status quo in Washington. It’s a pleasingly conciliatory narrative for a potential candidate whose party is anything but.
The problem is not with the message, but with the party of the messenger. Ever since the GOP began moving to the far right more than three decades ago, its leaders have engineered governmental dysfunction whenever a Democrat has held the White House, then reclaimed power by nominating a “moderate” conservative (so far always a Bush) who pledges to heal the wounds inflicted on the body politic by their own party.
A little historical context might help.
When Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980, his victory marked the official takeover of the Republican Party by a staunchly right-wing grassroots movement then known as the New Right. For the previous half century, the GOP had largely been led by pragmatic conservatives willing to work with the progressive Democrats who had dominated American politics since the rise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in 1932. To counter this, the New Rightists that nominated Reagan in 1980 built a political coalition ultimately capable of causing a major partisan realignment in their favor.
Along with the business-oriented conservatives who had long been the backbone of their party, the Reagan coalition appealed to the cultural and racial conservatism of blue-collar, suburban, and Southern white voters who had been turned off by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement, ’60s counterculture, and hot-button social issues like abortion, religion and gay rights.
Of course, there is a significant difference between the millions of ordinary voters and the die-hard true-believers who comprise the base of most successful political movements. Describing this characteristic in 1964 – the same year that GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater declared “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that, like many extremists, the so-called “paranoid” right-wing doesn’t view compromise as an acceptable method for dealing with political and social disagreement.
Because they characterize their ideological opponents as “totally evil and totally unappeasable,” Hofstadter wrote, the far right believes they “must be totally eliminated.” Those who waver in their resolve, instead of being praised for open-mindedness or at least cursorily acknowledged for their realism, are cast out as impure and corruptible.
This is the attitude that has defined how Republican congressmen and grassroots conservatives have behaved toward the two Democratic presidents elected after the Reagan Revolution.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, these conservatives strove not merely to thwart or modify his policy goals, but to delegitimize and destroy him entirely, from forcing a government shutdown to hounding him with allegations of scandal that culminated in America’s first impeachment trial since Reconstruction. They’ve done the same thing to Barack Obama since he took office in 2009, from forcing another government shutdown and threatening a debt default to obstructing his agenda with an unprecedented vehemence that has made the 113th Congress one of the most unproductive in American history.
One is tempted to say that the Bushes have staked their presidential ambitions on moderation in spite of hyper-partisanship, but in fact, they – as with other self-styled centrists – very much depend on it. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 by declaring “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” he presented himself as an antidote to the acrimony of the Clinton years, conveniently ignoring his own party’s culpability in creating it.
Faced with virtually the same climate a decade-and-a-half later, Jeb Bush has commendably acknowledged that he would have to “lose the primary to win the general,” but continues with the implicit argument that the fundamental problem in Washington is partisanship in the abstract rather than the specific attitude of the zealots in one party.
Even if Jeb Bush doesn’t run or isn’t nominated in 2016, it’s entirely likely that another Republican moderate will be coronated using essentially the same tactic – capitalizing on the right-wing extremism Hofstadter diagnosed 50 years ago without being held accountable for it. The template is as simple as it is effective: Allow your own party to stir up a perpetual political tempest whenever the president is a Democrat – a “totally evil and totally unappeasable” enemy who must be “totally eliminated” – and then present yourself as the calm in the storm.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of all this is that it actually works. Even if one concedes that democratic electorates are far from infallible in their judgments, one would hope that common sense and an instinct for political self-preservation would eventually come into play. After all, a viable two-party system cannot meaningfully endure if one side casts the idea of working with the other as a sin akin to striking a deal with the devil. Yet centrist voters – perhaps too quick to cast a pox on both houses – don’t seem to care that government shutdowns only occur with Republican legislatures and Democratic presidents, and never the other way around.
Major republican donors and political operatives are already lining up behind a potential third Bush candidacy.
Without this failure of the American people’s collective memory, there would be no premise upon which a three-president Bush dynasty could be built. If Jeb Bush were to actually succeed in getting elected two years hence as a “healing” president, America would need to seriously reexamine the political conditions that made that possible. The Bushes, though not among the progenitors of the New Right, have already become its most direct political beneficiaries.
Matthew Rozsa is getting his PhD in American history from Lehigh University and is a regular contributor to The Daily Dot, Salon, and The Good Men Project. In the past he has written for Mic, appeared on Huff Post Live, and has had articles published in roughly a dozen other venues.