The GOP's Revolt Against Bush

On issues from immigration to Islam, the 43rd president staked out a view far more progressive than today's conservatives. Peter Beinart on how declining U.S. confidence has changed the right.

08.09.10 7:12 AM ET

In the age of Obama, I always assumed that the Democratic Party would define itself against George W. Bush. But I never imagined that the Republican Party would as well.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that the central conservative insight is that culture matters more than politics. But in this regard, George W. Bush was an odd conservative because he didn’t care much about culture; he believed that people everywhere were pretty much the same. In the mid-1990s, when Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan were demonizing Mexican immigrants, Bush insisted that they were just like everyone else. “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River,” he told a reporter. “And see, what I understand is, is that when you’re a man who got kids to feed, and are you making 50 cents and you can look up north and see the chance to make $50 and your kids are hungry, that you are going to come.”

Prominent Republicans barely ever discuss illegal immigrants in the humanizing terms that Bush did.

After September 11, Bush described Muslims in the same universalistic way. A few months after the attacks, he insisted that “Islam is peace,” a view dramatically at odds with the one being propagated by most conservative talking heads. (A 2002 poll of evangelical Protestant leaders found that only 10 percent thought Bush was right.) But Bush’s brand of Christianity was genuinely ecumenical. Although he had transformed his life through Christ, he knew that lots of former addicts had done so through born-again Islam. As president, he sought out people like Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya who told him that the people of Iraq yearned for democracy, and were capable of building it. And it was this belief that made him receptive to the arguments of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who as ambassador to Indonesia had been emboldened by watching the world’s largest majority-Muslim country move from dictatorship to democracy. Two months before the Iraq War, Bush declared, “The human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.”

Tunku Varadarajan: Rove Bombs as Rush This is emphatically not what today’s Republicans believe. In 2006, Bush’s efforts at immigration reform were destroyed by the rising nativism of the grassroots GOP. And today, prominent Republicans barely ever discuss illegal immigrants in the humanizing terms that Bush did. Instead, former immigration doves like Lindsey Graham and John McCain muse about altering the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship to the predatory Mexicans supposedly jumping the border to have their babies in the United States.

Bryan Curtis: The Lost Bush MemoirYou don’t hear many Republicans calling Islam a religion of peace, either. Now that the need to justify the war in Iraq has diminished, few leading Republicans still echo Bush’s rhetoric about democratic transformation in the Middle East. When Republicans defend the war in Afghanistan, they generally do so in hard-headed security terms. And in the debate over the “Ground Zero” mosque, GOP bigwigs like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have discarded Bush’s universalistic, pro-Muslim language altogether, instead suggesting that Muslims should be considered democracy-haters until proven innocent. According to the New York Times, tea partiers across the country are protesting the building of new mosques. Once upon a time, such behavior might have embarrassed a Republican leadership concerned with winning hearts and minds in the “war of ideas” against “Islamofascism.” Now barely anyone on the right seems bothered. The goal is less to change Islam in the Middle East than to keep Islam from changing the United States.

The more pessimistic, less universalistic conservatism being born in the post-Bush era probably has something to do with the decline in American self confidence. In the early Bush years, when America’s budget deficit was still small, its military might was largely unchallenged, and the triumph of democracy still seemed like history’s inevitable course, it was easier to be optimistic about the future of Islam. That same ideological and economic confidence also made it easier to believe that the U.S. could assimilate immigrants coming across our southern border. Now conservatives are more aware of America’s limits. And when it comes to Mexicans and Muslims, that includes the limits of American decency, too.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.