At the Texas Students for Liberty conference I heard a lot of speakers. It was dismaying to find that one of the recurring themes from the Libertarian Party speakers was the repetition of the same mistaken assumptions about the nature of the Republican Party which I’m used to hearing from the political left, but which I had hoped Libertarians might be a little bit more informed on.
It was particularly discouraging to hear them express the popular misconception that the Republican Party is a monolithic entity which enthusiastically supported George W. Bush and all of his policies and is eager to continue and repeat those mistakes. Those of us who are within the party realize how ridiculous this belief is, but we haven’t made much more progress in tearing down the assumption that all Republicans are the same among those on the libertarian right than we have disabusing the political left of this idea. For the intellectual leaders on the left and far right this may be because it’s politically advantageous for both groups to portray the GOP as a stereotype and a bogeyman, but for many of their followers it may just be the result of being misinformed.
Yes, Republicans are to blame for putting George W. Bush in office and by association for the mistakes which he made. But that doesn’t mean that they supported his mistakes or that they were even enthusiastic backers of his policies at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Bush was a moderate, compromise candidate — picked not because Republicans supported him, but because they believed (rightly) that his differences from the mainstream of his own party would allow him to attract independents and moderate Democrats and make him a winning candidate. Yet the same qualities which made him a winning candidate put him at odds with many elements in his own party, who were willing to support him because he could win and because he made hollow promises to stick by certain principles. Yet many were not at all happy supporting Bush from the start and even less so with the specific policies which he promoted once he was in office.
Certainly Bush failed to live up to many of his promises and did things he felt were justified by threats to the nation, but as time went by it was increasingly clear that many Republicans were not on board for some of the things he was doing, and also that throughout his presidency none of the questionable things he did would have been possible without the support of Democrats and this became more and more true as his administration went on and he lost increasing amounts of support within his own party.
Despite strong Republican support, even the bill to Authorize the Use of Military Force after 9/11 against Afghanistan and Iraq did not have enough Republican votes in the House to pass. It was a vote short of even a simple majority and would not have passed without the 82 Democrats who voted for it. In the Senate the same was true and it was 3 votes short of passing without the 29 Democrats who voted for it, a 58% majority of the Democrats in the Senate. So when talking about responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan remember that the Democrats could have stopped those wars and took on equal responsibility for them when they did not do so.
Not long after, Bush promoted what is certainly my least favorite legislation of his presidenty, the USA PATRIOT Act. Again, it would never have passed without bipartisan support, and it had significantly less Republican support than the AUMF did less than a year before. Without the support of 142 Democrats in the House (a majority of Democrats) and all but one Senate Democrat, it and all of its offenses against our Constitutional rights would never have passed. So again, both parties are equally guilty of passing one of the worst pieces of legislation of the modern era, not just Republicans.
By the end of the Bush presidency the tide really had turned and Republicans were opposing Bush more than Democrats were. This is demonstrated in the passage of the TARP plan which Bush signed in 2008. When this bill was introduced and began the long process of madcap spending on bailouts and illusory economic stimulus, it actually had very little support among Republicans. When the bill was introduced a majority of Congressional Republicans actually opposed it and polls show that a majority of Republican voters also opposed it. Many of them did so vocally and in the media. Conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the Republican Liberty Caucus were strongly opposed to the plan. In order to pass TARP the administration ended up having to rely primarily on votes from Democrat legislators. In fact, only 65 House Republicans and 3 Senate Republicans voted to support TARP. The overwhelming support for it came from Democrats and they have been voting for bailouts and spending ever since. So ask yourself, was George W. Bush acting as a Republican president with Republican support in this instance? It doesn’t seem that way.
TARP is the definitive example, but throughout the Bush presidency there were issues where he was strongly at odds with the majority of his own party. The GOP has been described as a “Big Tent” and it really does include multiple constituencies who disagree with each other. One clear example of this was the struggle over immigration, where I happen to think Bush was on the right track, but which a strong majority of Republicans opposed vehemently. What’s more, if you look at polls on almost any issue throughout the Bush administration you’ll find that there was a significant percentage of Republicans who opposed the party majority and the party leadership. Some differ to the right and some differ to the left on particular issues, but there’s almost nothing Republicans are unanimous on. The same continues to be true now, though the extreme policies of the Obama administration have unified a lot of Republicans in general opposition.
If you admit the fact that many Republicans were not satisfied or entirely behind Bush on one or more of his policies, you may still wonder what makes this so important. It’s significant because the party has many factions within it and the dynamics of the party change in response to political situations and pressures. The factions which are currently most influential and which are vying for control of the party are not necessarily those which supported Bush, and when they oppose Obama for making so many of the same mistakes which Bush made, they are not being hypocritical, they are continuing an opposition to certain types of policies which began during the Bush administration. It’s quite possible that many of those raising complaints either did not support Bush or supported him reluctantly and against their better judgment out of loyalty or in the absence of any better solutions.
So when you say Republicans started the bailouts and the wars and the excessive growth of the security state, remember there’s plenty of blame to go around. Without Democrats also signing on to all of those bills they never would have happened, and in some cases it was Republicans who led the opposition to them. What’s more, the Republican Party leading opposition to Obama today is not at all the same party which supported Bush almost a decade ago. There are lots of new Republicans or newly energized Republicans and many new figures and groups are now in positions of influence. Certainly the Tea Party protesters see very little difference between the excesses of the Bush administration and the current Democrats in power.
So today, when Republicans repudiate the war in Afghanistan or massive government spending, remember that they may actually have been against those policies for a very long time, opposing them under Bush just as they do today, or cooperating reluctantly until having their eyes opened by subsequent events. Today’s Republican Party is full of post-Bush Republicans whose attitudes are very different from those of the Republican majority of 10 years ago and whose views are informed by the failures of Bush era policies which they now see being perpetuated by President Obama.
The old maxim “once burned, twice shy” applies here. When you saw a president you supported make terrible mistakes, why would you want to see those mistakes repeated by a president who has done nothing to win your support and tries to shift all of the blame for his mistakes onto his predecessor and your party?