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FROM THE outset, the Bush White House picked a unique strategy. Forget cunning political maneuvers; this administration would be a well-oiled corporate machine. The President was a born manager, a Harvard M.B.A. with a mind for “working smarter, not harder.” Such a background couldn’t help but improve federal functions.
The mindset played out in his choice of policies: a strong-arm plan for national security (the Patriot Act); a expansion of federal oversight (No Child Left Behind); vast, catch-all foreign aid packages; and two wars driven primarily by one department. These choices spoke of an administration focused on case-by-case solutions rather than sweeping political persuasion—the way any good problem-solving businessman would do it.
But while this style might flourish in the top rungs of a for-profit company, it visibly crashed and burned in the upper echelons of the Grand Old Party.
Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, made a great observation when he looked at President Bush’s approach to capitalism-as-usual politics. While the chief executive of a company must make tough decisions, the president is not wise to be “long on decisions and short on explanation.” Time and again, from Guantanamo Bay to the recent slew of unpopular bailouts, the President has assumed the voters trust him as an executive without offering clear justifications for his actions. He is free to do that, of course, but it has disheartened his base and alienated the undecided.
Despite many forced comparisons, the plain truth is that politicians and company executives don't really operate under the same pressures or priorities. Shareholders care primarily for the bottom line, but voters may invoke any number of priorities from national security to democratic power to freedom from want. As Kesler points out, the President must have the rhetorical perception to weigh competing interests and then to explain his reasoning to the world’s most diverse electorate. In contrast with basic economic interest, political interests often equate the means with the ends, and a politician must be prepared to defend both. (See Saul Alinsky, the court philosopher of the elite left.)
Unfortunately for conservatives, the G.O.P. bore the brunt of the public backlash to Bush’s M.B.A. strategy. Since the congressional rout of 2006 and the lackluster showing in November, the party platform hasn't been able to escape a one-dimensional caricature. Despite the unpopularity of the President’s policies, McCain couldn’t distance himself because Bush was the only clear definition of the Republican Party anyone could look up and see. Congressional gridlock prevented party leaders from advancing any kind of agenda, and the "Bush Doctrine," in both domestic and international form, served as the only G.O.P. platform that the public could recognize.
All this sinks deeply into the mold of modern presidential selection, casting the President as the party figurehead. His policies are the party’s policies and, yes, his failures are the party’s failures. But as Reagan demonstrated, it is one thing to be head of a party and quite another to be its leader.
Unlike Bush’s business plan, Reagan left pragmatism in the background to shed a brighter light on conservatism's broader ideals. Consider how clearly he showed the country that while efficiency and problem-solving are important, they are only tools to advance the classic conservative virtues of individual freedom and human dignity. Rhetoric, and not solving policy problems, made those ideas take root in a huge sector of the electorate.
In reverse, a lack of emblematic guidance creates a nasty power vacuum. Without an ideological theme, the Bush administration and the Republican Party could only react with possible answers rather than proactively offer a plan for the country. Perhaps this is why Bush’s approval ratings have steadily declined as his solutions have proliferated.
The Bush management plan's key weakness was its fundamental lack of principled rhetoric. His approach to crisis and controversy was almost pure pragmatism. Terrorism needs a war on terror. Foreign AIDS needs foreign aid. Federal responsibilities need federal spending. Garnished with discussions of “defending freedom,” many of these policies were isolated company projects, not always overseen by the most forthright management personnel (to put it lightly). And so, when the Democratic Party offered change, hope and plan, the G.O.P. could had nothing with which to counter—an A-B-C-D string of options was no longer enough.
And so, much like the election after the first Bush management team, the G.O.P. faces more than just a setback in profits. The party must recover its political identity. Republicans can thank Bush for stalwart management, but now it’s time to recruit some politicians.
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