The Democrats underestimated George W. Bush. They've admitted as much, though what to do about it has left them in a delicious quandary. The Republicans, by contrast, risk misunderstanding him, even as they prepare to follow his lead in the new GOP-controlled Congress. Combine a misunderstanding with an underestimation and you get a "misunderestimation," a word that Bush coined and that fills a definite need, at least in today's politics.
President Bush is not only very popular, he's interested in doing something with his popularity. The Democrats are just waking up to what he did to them. More interesting is what he's trying to do to his own party. Gradually, he is reshaping the Republicans in the image of "compassionate conservatism," preparing them for what he and Karl Rove expect to be an enduring political realignment in which the GOP emerges as the new majority party.
The strategy is visible most clearly in those races where the administration groomed the candidate. For example, in North Carolina Bush tapped Elizabeth Dole to succeed Jesse Helms. In Minnesota, Bush anointed Norm Coleman and in New Hampshire he encouraged John Sununu, even in the face of an incumbent Republican senator. To be sure, it didn't always work. Richard Riordan, the White House's choice to run against California Governor Gray Davis, lost the primary to the more conservative Bill Simon. Still, Bush tried hard to put a new, more moderate or moderately conservative face on the party.
Of course, presidents often meddle in down-ticket races in order to boost friendly candidates, but if Republicans think that's all Bush is doing, they misunderstand his ambition. Rove has been more forthcoming than Bush himself, speculating to the Washington Post that the time may be ripe for a new William McKinley, the veteran Republican politician who crushed William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election, ushering in almost 35 years of Republican dominance in Washington. McKinley, Rove told the Post, "correctly analyzed the political significance of the new, industrial-based economy and understood that the wave of immigration at the turn of the century was creating a diverse population that would require a new kind of politics." Rove added that McKinley "saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the 1860s had sort of worn themselves out. Neither party could successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances. All those issues had either become resolved or irrelevant."
Sound familiar? Change the "1860s" to the 1960s and you have a standard Bush refrain. We need a way out of the "old, tired argument" between more and less government, Bush told a joint session of Congress. "We should leave those arguments to the last century."
In place of the "old, tired argument" about the size and scope of the national government, Bush hails, as McKinley did, economic opportunity as the key to stability, prosperity—even to integrating immigrants into American life. Like McKinley, Bush thinks the country needs to focus on forward-looking concerns that most people can agree with, like building the "responsibility society." He wants to achieve his goals, he said in the 2000 campaign, without "dividing people." And like the president who won the Spanish-American War, Bush is pursuing a vigorous foreign policy.
To a striking degree, the Republican candidates encouraged by Bush in the 2002 election echoed these themes. They supported the war on terrorism, prescription drugs for the elderly, and Social Security reform. Though they backed Republican tax cuts, hardly anyone offered to tackle the federal government's indiscipline and sprawl. A hot topic was education reform, though few criticized bilingualism, multiculturalism, or racial and gender preferences. Questions about abortion could not be entirely avoided, but these and other issues of sexual morality were referred, often tacitly, to a different office: We need judges who will enforce the law and the Constitution as written!
As a prescription for the modern GOP, McKinley-style Republicanism has real costs and poses a special problem: How do we profit from the lessons of the 1896 realignment while ignoring the standing legacy of the 1912 and 1932 elections? In truth, what McKinley accomplished was to renew (unworthily, in some respects: he punted on Jim Crow) the deeper Republican realignment consummated by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s.
Bush has no similar bulwark. He operates in a political system decisively changed by the two elections that launched the modern liberal state—elections whose consequences we examine in this issue of the Claremont Review of Books. A Republican electoral realignment would have to challenge the premises, at least, of liberal Democratic government, especially its impatience with any limits on itself save those imposed by the spirit of the age. The "old, tired argument" about government's limits and purposes cannot, then, be avoided, certainly not in a realignment that is more than nominally Republican. To think otherwise would be a huge misunderestimation.