Barack Obama has won the presidential election by making it a referendum on the Bush presidency and by successfully making John McCain look like a Bush clone. Voters decided they wanted more "change" than McCain could be expected to deliver.
Whether that was a fair or accurate characterization of McCain’s policy agenda is now a quaint question for historians. What we know for sure is that the voters opted for “change” without any real understanding of what kind of change they will get.
Even before all the dust has settled, there are some clear lessons for Republicans from the McCain campaign and eight years of the Bush presidency. Some of the lessons are obvious, but some are hidden beneath several layers of political correctness.
First, Karl Rove’s grand paradigm for a "permanent Republican majority" built on "compassionate conservatism" was grand hype based on a grand illusion. No political victory can be permanent; each generation must fight for human liberty all over again. Bush’s spending programs in Medicare, education and elsewhere succeeded only in vastly increasing the national debt without creating any new Republican constituencies. This orgy of government spending greatly damaged the "Republican brand" and left Republican loyalists dismayed and disoriented. Eight years of George Bush and the idiosyncratic McCain campaign have left voters confused about what Republicans stand for.
Second, it was neither smart politics nor smart policy to allow Ted Kennedy and the American Immigration Lawyers Association to write a Bush-McCain immigration reform plan which gave only lip service to border security. Those congressional battles alienated 90 percent of the Republican base and 75 percent of independents. Did the McCain support of two amnesty plans in 2006 and 2007 win him more support among Hispanic political groups than Republicans normally get? No. McCain could not out-pander the Democrat party, and it was foolish to try.
A third lesson of the Bush presidency is that a large segment of the American news media has abandoned any serious pretense to objectivity and adopted a partisan agenda. The mainstream news media attacked George Bush for eight years through a relentless barrage of biased reporting and selective indignation: “Bush’s Failed War Strategy”… “Bush’s Oil Company Ties”… “Bush’s Deregulation of Wall Street”…“Bush’s War on Civil Liberties”….”Bush’s Approval Rating Plunges”….Some people can escape the impact of such incessant, poisonous negativism, but the millions of Americans who do not listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity could not.
The lessons of the McCain campaign mirror those of the Bush era. McCain did not run as a Republican until the final month of the election. In 2007 he launched his campaign as a "maverick," a man who was above party, a man who relished bipartisan deals like McCain-Feingold, echoing Bush’s early efforts to “rise above ideology.” This Lone Ranger theme earned him the approval of the liberal media only as long as he was running against conservatives in the presidential primary, but once he had the nomination locked up, the establishment media turned on him. "Maverick" is a style, not a program of reform and not a set of principles. By the time McCain began articulating a Republican agenda that could appeal to independents and blue-collar workers, it was too late.
McCain’s campaign did not catch fire until the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The McCain operatives who now try to blame Governor Palin for the campaign’s failures are both wrong and dishonest. It wasn’t Sarah Palin who failed to deliver even a knockdown punch in three debates with Obama, and it wasn’t Sarah Palin who forbade any mention of Obama’s association with Reverends Wright and Pfleger, the anarchist Ayers, the felon financial adviser Rezko, the PLO agent Khalidi, and the vote fraud machine ACORN.
The news media gave Obama a pass on his long association with these radicals and never subjected his tax and spending proposals to serious scrutiny. Republicans were blamed for the credit crisis despite Democrat fingerprints all over the Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac scandals and Fannie Mae political donations to Obama. Sarah Palin was constantly ridiculed while Joe Biden’s incoherence and frequent gaffes went unexamined.
In truth, McCain was at times his own worst enemy as a campaigner. "Economics is not my strong suit," he admitted in an interview one month before the financial meltdown on Wall Street. Lesson from Politics 101: Let your opponents discover your Achilles heel if they can; don’t confess it on national television.
Can the Republican Party rebuild to gain substantial victories in 2010 and 2012? Yes, absolutely. In the first place, recovering the principles, vision and verve of Ronald Reagan will be a lot easier with Barack Obama in the White House and George Bush back on his ranch. Candidate Obama could demonize Bush, demagogue oil companies and Wall Street, and avoid spelling out his own policies in detail. But populist rhetoric must now yield to concrete legislation. After the public gets a look at the real Obama and his socialist plans for sharing the wealth across the globe — and yes, socialist is the most accurate term to describe Obama’s philosophy — Republican alternatives will not only seem respectable, they will be downright attractive. Not everyone in heartland America drank the New Change Kool-Aid; many voters would have voted for Benedict Arnold just to poke Bush in the eye. That sentiment will dissipate quickly.
The party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan has endured a tortuous detour down the Bush Parkway and then into the McCain cul-de-sac. Fortunately, we do have a compass — a compass called the Constitution and a north star called limited government. The first step to regain our bearings is to stop talking about where we have been and start thinking about where we want to go. More than the future of the Republican party depends on our resilience and our abiity to chart that new course successfully.