Who Is the Anti-Bush?

One of the things that surprises me so far in the race for the White House is that none of the Republicans is positioning himself clearly as the anti-Bush. I think there is a yearning for such a candidate among the Republican electorate.

Here’s some evidence. For some time, Strategic Vision, a polling company, has been asking Republican voters if they see George W. Bush as a conservative in the mode of Ronald Reagan. Not only did very few Republicans view Bush that way when the question was first asked last fall, but the number has fallen to the level of rounding error.

Consider Florida. In October 2006, 25 percent of Republicans saw the president as another Reagan. But in the latest poll, released on June 21, only 7 percent of them answered in the affirmative. The same story is told in every state for which we have data. The following list compares the percentage of Republicans saying Bush is another Reagan the first time the question was asked with the most recent figure: Georgia, 24-7; Iowa, 11-6; Michigan, 17-9; New Jersey, 13-8; Pennsylvania, 18-7; Washington, 14-11; Wisconsin, 27-7.

Thus we see that only about 7 percent of Republicans nationally view Bush as having Reagan-like qualities. Seventy percent to 80 percent say he is not at all like Reagan. Yet most Republicans say they would like to see a candidate who is another Reagan.

Strategic Vision has also asked about that. In a poll taken in Iowa last week, 65 percent of Republicans said it was very important or somewhat important for the Republican nominee to be a conservative in the Reagan mode. A poll of Georgia Republicans released the same day showed 75 percent of Republicans saying that the party’s nominee should be Reagan-like.

When you contrast the percentage of Republicans favoring a Reaganite nominee with the extremely low percentage who see Bush as being in the Reagan mode, it would seem that there is a great opportunity for one of the Republican candidates to articulate an anti-Bush, pro-Reagan message. Yet, oddly, no one is doing so. On the contrary, all the major candidates seem to be trying to avoid a confrontation with Bush and mostly echo him on key issues such as Iraq.

This approach has been most damaging to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Once widely admired for his independence, he seems to have decided about a year ago to run as Bush’s lapdog. Toward that end, McCain has not only been the strongest supporter of the war among the Republican candidates, but he even backed Bush on his extraordinarily unpopular immigration reform plan. This strategy has basically destroyed McCain’s campaign.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is trying the hardest to appear to be another Reagan. But while Reagan had been deeply involved in the conservative movement for many years before becoming president, Romney comes across as a Johnny-come-lately conservative who didn’t govern as a one and adopts conservative positions only because he has to in order to win the nomination.

This view of Romney may be unfair, but it is widely held. He is probably the candidate with the most to gain by becoming the anti-Bush. It would be a simple matter to lay out all of Bush’s anti-conservative policies, starting with immigration. Romney can then go on to lambaste the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare drug giveaway, campaign finance reform, the failure to veto pork-laden spending bills and so on. Such a strategy could give Romney the credibility that he has been lacking and make him the true heir to Reagan.

Former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani is really just a one-issue candidate. We are supposed to believe that because he did an admirable job on 9-11 that this alone qualifies him to be president. I don’t really see this as being enough, but I’m not sure he has much more to offer. I think the vast bulk of his support comes from those Republicans who simply think he has the best chance of winning the general election. This support will vanish if the polls show another candidate with a better chance.

That candidate could be former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who like Reagan, also had a long career in Hollywood. Thompson looks and sounds the part, which is why he is leading some polls despite not even being an official candidate. If he were to hire some of Reagan’s speechwriters and articulate a clear Reaganite vision for the future that explicitly repudiates Bush’s deviations from conservative principles, Thompson could go all the way.

Sooner or later, Republicans are going to have to distance themselves from the failure-ridden Bush presidency if they hope to win next year. Whichever candidate does the best job of being the anti-Bush may have the best chance of winning it all.