President McCain and the Soul of the Republican Party

There’s a cliché that can aptly be applied to the Republicans and their unexpectedly decent odds for winning the presidential race: Be careful what you wish for.

Since World War II, a basic pattern has prevailed, with one party controlling the White House for two terms, followed by the other. In the modern era, eight years seems to be about all the patience voters have with one party calling the shots. This is one of the many reasons why 2008 set up so poorly for the G.O.P., and why it’s been something of a revelation that John McCain has kept the polls close with Barack Obama.

Once in the postwar period, though, the incumbent party did what McCain and the G.O.P. are now endeavoring to do and held on for a third term – in 1988, when George H. W. Bush soundly defeated Michael Dukakis. But Bush’s presidency offers an ominous precedent for the G.O.P.’s near-term political prospects should McCain win this fall.

Obviously, the chief factor in Bush’s failure to win reelection in 1992 was the poor economy, and his bumbling inability to convince Americans he grasped the severity of their suffering or that he had the ability to address it. But his problems went deeper than that. Bush also spent his term pursuing a pragmatic domestic agenda, choosing what he perceived as responsible and prudent decision-making over ideology – the “town father” model that you might expect from a Greenwich patrician.

For instance, Bush backed an unpopular and politically toxic bailout of numerous savings-and-loan institutions, believing that this was essential to keeping the economy stable. He also championed the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act and – of course – backtracked on his famous “read my lips” campaign pledge and supported a tax increase in 1990. All of these moves, but particularly the tax hike, had the effect of alienating the G.O.P.’s conservative base, which was then in its ascendancy, and confirming the right’s long-held suspicion that Bush, for all of his conservative campaign rhetoric in 1988, was fundamentally a man of moderate instincts.

This realization spurred an intra-party revolt. In the House, Newt Gingrich, then the minority whip, rallied his fellow conservatives to oppose the bipartisan 1990 budget agreement because Bush had folded on taxes. They failed to stop the budget, but the dispute revealed and exacerbated fissures within the G.O.P.’s Congressional ranks, with Gingrich’s conservative rebels openly clashing with pragmatic old bulls like House Minority Leader Robert Michel and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.

Bush’s abandonment of the right also led directly to Pat Buchanan’s decision in December 1991 to challenge him in the Republican presidential primaries, the first (and still only) time since 1968 that a sitting president has faced serious intra-party competition for renomination. Buchanan railed against the budget accord, the Civil Rights Act, and Bush’s free-trade agenda (here, at least, Buchanan was ideologically at odds with most Reagan conservatives) and scored nearly 40 percent in the lead-off New Hampshire primary. “I think King George is starting to get the message!” he declared on primary night.

Buchanan failed to replicate his New Hampshire showing in subsequent primaries and Bush quickly secured enough delegates to claim the nomination. But Buchanan’s New Hampshire success made international news, the same way Eugene McCarthy’s near-upset of Lyndon Johnson in 1968 had, and revealed just how week within his own party Bush had become.

Buchanan’s success also forced Bush to accommodate him and his 3.5 million voters at that summer’s Republican convention. Buchanan was handed a prime-time speaking slot on the convention’s first night, which he used to declare that America was in the throes of a “culture war” – and to knock Ronald Reagan, in what turned out to be his final G.O.P. convention appearance, out of prime time. The ultraconservative tone of the 1992 Republican convention, a direct response by Bush to his critics on the right, further poisoned Bush’s standing with less-ideological independent and swing voters.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that McCain, if elected, will follow Bush’s example. He might be an entirely different kind of president. But there are some striking parallels between their backgrounds and their approaches to governing.

Like Bush, McCain has long been mistrusted by the right. Just as Bush ran his first presidential campaign as a pro-choice New England moderate (who warned of Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics”), McCain burst onto the national scene in 2000 as a fearless reformer who was willing to call out members of his own party by name (like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson).

Bush spent the eight years after his first campaign as Reagan’s vice president, frantically atoning for his sins against conservatives and trying to recast himself as a fellow Reagan revolutionary. His relentlessness, coupled with the power of his office, was just enough for him to win most of the right over, however grudgingly. McCain got a later start, but he too has moved to shore up his standing with the right – so much so that the moderate to liberal media voices who once championed him now say they don’t recognize McCain.

But just as with Bush, there’s really no reason to think that McCain’s conversion to domestic policy conservatism is all that sincere. (His hawkish foreign policy views are another matter.) If he wins this fall, it’s not hard to envision McCain pursuing a pragmatic domestic policy course. Those Bush tax cuts that he once abhorred but that he now promises to extend? It’s easy to envision President McCain, just like President George H. W. Bush once did, announcing that the country needs more tax revenue. Immigration? Sure, he had to temper his rhetoric about how “we are all God’s children” to secure the G.O.P. nomination, but why wouldn’t he revert to his old ways once he has real power? And the environment and global warming? McCain is already well to the left of most of his party on that one.

When Bush won 20 years ago, Republicans rejoiced, having just saved the country from (in their view) the horrors of Dukakis-ism. Two years later, they were at war with themselves. Expect a similar celebration if the G.O.P. defeats Obama in seven weeks – and similar strife once President McCain settles in.

President McCain and the Soul of the Republican Party