Sean Wilentz: How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party





[Mr. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton and author of The Age of Reagan.]

The failure of the administration of George W. Bush — and the accompanying crisis of the Republican Party — has caused a political meltdown of historic proportions. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bush enjoyed the greatest popularity ever recorded for a modern American president. Republicans on Capitol Hill, under the iron rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, fattened their coffers through a fearsome operation overseen by corporate lobbyists and GOP henchmen that functioned more like an empire than an old-fashioned political machine. "Republican hegemony," the prominent conservative commentator Fred Barnes rejoiced in 2004, "is now expected to last for years, maybe decades."

Now, only four years later, Bush is leaving office with the longest sustained period of public disapproval ever recorded. No president, at least in modern times — and certainly no two-term president — has risen so high only to fall so low. Indeed, Bush's standings in the polls describe one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the American presidency — second only, perhaps, to that of Richard Nixon, the only president ever forced to resign from office. And in Congress, the indictment and downfall of DeLay and a host of associated scandals involving, among others, the Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, have badly damaged the party's image. The supremacy of the GOP, once envisioned by party operatives as a "permanent majority," may be gone for a very long time to come.

At first glance, the collapse of the Republican Party seems rapid and unexpected. When viewed within the larger context of American history, however, the party's breakdown looks familiar, even predictable. As in earlier party crackups — 1854, 1932, 1968 — the demise has involved not a single, sudden explosion but a gradual unraveling followed by a sharp and rapid deterioration amid major national calamities. If Bush and the Republican majority in Congress accelerated the demise of Ronald Reagan's political era with their assault on traditional American values and institutions — including the rule of law itself — it is a decline that began two decades ago.



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