Blogs > HNN > Using political science to understand Bush

Dec 5, 2006 6:37 pm

Using political science to understand Bush

There's a useful political science insight into the way voters vote that is helpful in understanding President Bush.

For decades political scientists have observed that voters often base their decisions on the past. Not knowing what the future will bring, they look backward and cast their ballot on what they do know. Some will look back only four years, some will look back decades. Thus, in any one election, you will have some voters voting 1960, others 1932, and still others 1860. The year they pick tells you a lot about who they are, what values they cherish and the events that shaped their world view.

Applying this insight to President Bush, what do we find? I think it is that President Bush was shaped by two years: 1980 and 1992. This distinguishes him from so many members of his generation who were shaped by 1960 and 1968. But those years evidently mean little to Mr. Bush. 1980 appears to be very meaningful. He refers to Ronald Reagan's election frequently.

Why? He seems to like the Big Ideas of President Reagan. He especially seems to like the idea that a president can gamble with history and come out on top. He wanted his tax cuts to be like Reagan's and he wanted the war in Iraq to be like Reagan's. (The war would end terrorism once and for all as President Reagan helped bring an end to the Cold War once and for all.)

Then there's 1992. We know what happened then. His father lost. This president doesn't like to lose (who does?). But what lesson did he take away from the loss? It wasn't that he should fight dirty to win; he absorbed that lesson from his father in 1988. (As the first President Bush confided once, you do what you have to do in a campaign and then don't look back.) It was that you have to cater to your base.

We are all prisoners of our own world views. One reason President Bush may find it difficult to change in the face of changing circumstances is that 1980 and 1992 are so indelibly a part of his make-up that he cannot see that the lessons they seem to teach are inappropriate to the circumstances in which he now finds himself. He's a prisoner of the past in very much the same way that Iraqis are a prisoner of their past.

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