June 27, 2008
Where are the Bush Democrats?By Paul Kengor
Ronald Reagan made that remark in a 1975 interview with Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." The interview has been largely forgotten, and was brought to my attention by the good folks at the Reagan Ranch Center / Young America's Foundation, which runs the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, California, where this interview took place.
Observing the uninspiring presidential leadership of moderate Republican Gerald Ford, Reagan explained to Wallace the need for effective communication. He evoked FDR's fireside chats -- not to mention a harbinger of his own presidency: "He [FDR] took his case to the people, and he enlightened the people, and the people made Congress feel the heat."
While the interview has slipped through the cracks of history, these words of political wisdom from the Great Communicator are as timeless as ever. In fact, they have never been so obvious, especially for Republicans over the past eight years and going into November.
I'm in a small camp of Republicans who believes that George W. Bush has the potential to be remembered as a leader who did great things -- a stoic, stable presence who stood the course and quietly transformed the Middle East and wider world, laying the groundwork for a much better 21st century. Of course, that's a big "if," depending on whether his extraordinary actions in Iraq and Afghanistan bear fruit over the long-run. If they don't, he will be seen as a failed leader.
That said, Bush has not been a "great leader" as defined by Reagan in 1975. Reagan was not only onto something with that remark but was prophetic of his own work. Reagan himself changed people and changed the world. He got people to do great things, inspiring them at home and abroad. Consider the case of Poland, the most important Eastern European country in the collapse of communism, where it took the efforts of, yes, the American leader, but also a people. Lech Walesa would later say of Reagan and Poland:
Or consider this sign posted near the mortuary in Santa Monica, California shortly after the announcement of Reagan's death in June 2004: "Sir-You told Gorbachev to ‘Take down this wall.' We helped. Thanks for your courage and leadership." Affixed to the sign were two quarter-sized bits from the Berlin Wall.
This admiration has not subsided behind the former Iron Curtain. Today in Poland, they are naming train stops and town squares after Reagan, and literally building statues to the man.
To be fair to George W. Bush, he, like Reagan in Poland, prompted the Iraqi people to some stunning accomplishments, including risking their lives in several historic democratic elections. Bush was equally, if not more, popular than Reagan in the initial days after the fall of Baghdad and removal of Saddam Hussein. That approval of Bush, however, was fleeting. He is not as beloved in Iraq today like Reagan is in Poland -- at least not yet.
But the biggest difference between the two presidents resides within the borders of their own nation, where Bush completely lacks the support that Reagan overwhelmingly enjoyed from the vast majority of Americans. Reagan was elected to a second term in a landslide, winning 49 of 50 states. He left office with the highest approval ratings (Gallup) of any president since Eisenhower. Bush spends his final year in office with the lowest approval ratings (Gallup) of any president since Truman.
What's more, Reagan was a towering figure in his own party -- literally Lincolnesque. In an interesting modern political phenomenon, local GOP chapters throughout the country have begun holding Reagan Day Dinners in February instead of their traditional Lincoln Day Dinners. Bush, on the other hand, is unpopular even within his own party. A couple of weeks ago at the website of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, we received a disgruntled email from an excellent editor who frequently publishes our material. He is a conservative Republican. Angry over an op-ed I wrote commending George W. Bush, the editor zinged Bush as a "destroyer of the modern Republican Party." That's a complaint I'm hearing constantly from Republicans, and I fully understand the point. Bush will leave the GOP much weaker than the rebuilt party he inherited from Reagan.
Further, consider Bush's total lack of inroads among Democrats. It is there, perhaps more than anywhere else, where Bush has completely failed. Remember the Reagan Democrats -- the converts who came to the Republican Party because of Reagan? There were literally tens of millions of them. I meet them constantly to this day. The combination of Jimmy Carter's disastrous presidency and then the emergence and resounding success of Ronald Reagan transformed the political landscape for a generation. In fact, it elected George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush as well. The Bushes, however, have been poor stewards of the legacy; they have allowed it to expire. This was not so much policy-wise -- though that's a big part of the failure -- but communication-wise.
In the end, then, where are the Bush Democrats? Where are the Bush converts? There are few to none of them.
If all of that isn't depressing enough for Republicans, consider the future: What Reagan lamented to Mike Wallace in 1975 is again lacking -- with no solution in sight -- in 2008. In 1975, there was a solution to the problem identified by Reagan: Reagan. In 2008, George W. Bush's Ford-like failure to inspire is rearing its ugly head as the greatest liability of John McCain. It is recurring; it persists.
McCain is not only failing to turn it around but probably will make it worse. He is a terrible communicator -- a painfully clear inability to speak well and to articulate conservatism. McCain's shortcomings in this regard will be made even more manifest by the Democratic presidential nominee, the most radical-left candidate his party has ever nominated but who has the slick ability to look good and speak well -- even when saying nothing -- and woo voters.
All of this means that the situation is pretty darned grim for the Republicans. To stand a chance in 2008, they need the votes of Bush Democrats. The only problem is that there aren't any.
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007), professor of political science, and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007