Jonathan Chait

Post-Compassionate Conservatism

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Rich Lowry smartly holds up uncompassionate conservative Rick Perry as evidence of the  Republican Party's rightward lurch post George W. Bush:

The backlash against Bush has long been brewing. Compassionate conservatism was a product of the moment when Bush began to run for president in the late 1990s. The congressional wing of the party had immolated itself in the government-shutdown fights and then the impeachment of Bill Clinton. A rebranding was in order, and Bush wanted to signal to general-election voters that they needn’t fear him.

Bush-style conservatism never really took with the broader party, although it gained acquiescence. The president usually gets his way with his congressional majority, so Bush could push through No Child Left Behind and the prescription-drug benefit. The war on terror and the Left’s hatred for him bonded conservatives to Bush whatever their misgivings. The nomination of John McCain himself no down-the-line conservative obscured the anti-Bush feeling.

Now, it’s in full flower and evident on all fronts, from spending and immigration to foreign policy, as Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns point out in Politico. Running on his message circa 1999, George W. Bush would be hard-pressed to gain traction in the current Republican party. Running on his record circa 2008 the spending programs, the bailouts, the attempted amnesty and the two ongoing “hearts and minds” wars of counterinsurgency he’d be booed from the stage. If Michele Bachmann didn’t drop-kick him off it first.

The problem, of course, is that the conditions that required Bush to present himself as a moderate still largely hold true today. The GOP is discredited among swing voters, and not because they think Bush cared too much about poor people and minorities. Now, it's possible that the economy is bad enough that the party can overcome public distrust of its extremism. But it's also distinctly possible that the economy is bad enough that a moderate-seeming Republican would be likely to win, but a Republican running straight from the party id would lose. The party seems determined to test just how far it can ride the benefits of being the out party in a post-financial crisis economy.

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