The unpopular presidency of George W. Bush has proved to be a blackball on the résumés of a generation of Republican leaders. Maybe Cheney’s daughter Liz will break the pattern next year with a successful Senate bid in Wyoming, but if you made it through that sentence without spitting coffee out your nose, you’re in rare company.
The fascinating turmoil in the Republican Party since 2008 is not just a personnel problem — it’s also ideological. If you were putting together a legacy to inspire the next generation of conservatives, you wouldn’t pick the Bush administration’s trailing ends of land wars, budget deficits, torture, a crusade against gay rights and a financial collapse to rival the Great Depression. The isolationism and libertarian iconography of the Ron Paul wing of the party really does appeal to young people more than Bush-Cheney Republicanism.
Social conservatives really do feel backed into a corner and ready to fight against a country that is turning against them faster than most pollsters can keep up. There really is something ripe for renewal in Republicans’ self-conception as fiscal conservatives, when the clear pattern is that budget deficits grow under Republicans and shrink under Democrats. The Republican Party is a churning swirl of conflicting ideological currents, and that’s going to take some time to work out.
But part of the reason it may be taking so long already is those lost years: the period from 2000 to 2008 that effectively obviated the authority and the leadership potential of all of Washington’s Republican elites. The George W. Bush administration didn’t just cast too much shade on the next generation of leadership — it also apparently poisoned the ground.
The Obama administration’s ability to nurture and support the next round of national leadership in the Democratic Party is going to be a big part of its long-term legacy. Unless Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential hinting suddenly takes a turn for the serious, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the obvious inheritor of the party’s mantle. But, as in 2008, the Beltway may be overstating her inevitability. The grass roots aren’t all with her, frankly, and it’s yet to be seen if she’s interested in trying to win them over. Mainstream press may buy big-dollar donors (and more mainstream press), but it can’t buy the passionate volunteers and activists and excitement that are the oxygen for a winning campaign and sustained, effective leadership.