The Cowboy Republicans Can’t Quit

He left us with two wars and an economic crisis, but Republicans still hold George W. Bush in high esteem.

We take for granted that, for all their ideological rigidity, Republicans have made a break with the recent past. Say what you will about the Tea Party zealotry of the last four years, it has been a break with the lazy incompetence of the George W. Bush years.

But is this true? Are Republicans as down on the Bush presidency as the rest of the world, or is this a tactical shift, a (so-far-successful) attempt to rebrand the party in the age of Obama? Will the next Republican absorb the lessons of the Bush administration, or should we expect a repeat performance?

I don’t have an answer. But if there’s a clue, it lies in the ongoing esteem of Republicans for their former leader. To wit, during a talk with the Economic Club of Chicago, Chris Christie—the embattled New Jersey governor—offered unqualified praise for the administration of George W. Bush:

In his most expansive, engaging and combative remarks since scandal enveloped him, Mr. Christie mocked President Obama for entering office without “a respect for the other party,” complained that George W. Bush was “grossly underappreciated” in the White House and seemed to make a novel case for his own, now-blemished candidacy for president in 2016.

Now, the idea that Obama entered office without respect for Republicans is ludicrous—he kept one in his cabinet and bent over backwards to win GOP support for his stimulus package—but we’re not here for Christie’s mendacity. What’s interesting about this is his clear admiration for Bush. And while it’s hard to know how much of this is self-interest—this group includes GOP donors, after all—it is true that Bush retains his standing with Republican voters.

In a poll released last year by ABC News and the Washington Post, 84 percent of Republicans said they approved of George W. Bush, compared to 45 percent of independents and just 25 percent of Democrats. This includes self-described conservatives (69 percent approval), whites (55 percent approval), and voters with incomes of over $100,000 (55 percent). The poll doesn’t give a detailed look at issue-based approval, but my sense is that you’d see similar numbers for his handling of the economy, and his decision to invade Iraq.

So what, if anything, does this mean for GOP prospects? Pace the popular prognosis, Republicans don’t need to change to win elections. The 2016 election will turn on Obama’s standing and the state of the economy. If conditions are poor, and Republicans field a credible candidate, then there’s a good chance they win the White House.

If Bush esteem is relevant, it’s for Republican governance. And there, we have reason for worry. With few exceptions, the Bush presidency was a parade of failures, from poor economic stewardship to disastrous wars and a contempt for the basic functions of government. And a Republican Party that looks at this and sees success is a Republican Party that isn’t prepared—or qualified—to hold the reins of power.