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Slow Learners

What part of "overwhelming electoral defeat" does the GOP not understand?

A year and a half ago, around the time thoughtful conservatives started to realize that George W. Bush might not in fact be a combination of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote a cover story pinpointing the source of the president's failings: He had a competence problem. Going forward, Lowry suggested, the party might want a new leader a bit less, well, meatheaded than the incumbent. Republicans would seek out someone who "doesn't run the government like George W. Bush," he predicted— someone "detail-oriented" and "proven (in jobs more demanding than part owner of a baseball team or governor in a state where the office is weak)."

Yet the Republican who has emerged from the wreckage of the 2008 elections having captured the loyalty of the party faithful—Sarah Palin—does not quite fit this description. The base does not appear concerned. "At a recent meeting of conservative activists," writes an approving Midge Decter, "the very mention of her name set the whole room cheering and the women present all but dancing on the tables."

The outpouring of Republican enthusiasm for Palin suggests that the party faithful have not quite digested Lowry's critique of Bush—or, for that matter, any critique of Bush whatsoever. This week, Republicans are holding a series of confabs to plot their way forward. The most popular themes appear to be Palin in particular and the return to a more traditional conservatism in general. A recent, pre-election Democracy Corps poll found that Republican voters, by a two-to-one margin, think their party "needs to get back to Republican issues," as opposed to devising "better ways to make government work for people, make America secure and address new problems." I have seen the future of the Republican Party, and it is the present of the Republican Party. Only perhaps more so.

Among the intelligentsia, a handful of thinkers have started to argue that the failure of the Bush administration calls for a rethinking of conservatism. But the most powerful institutions of the right—Fox News, talk radio, National Review, The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the major right-wing think tanks—remain firmly in the hands of conservatives who see the events of the last eight years as a vindication of their ideology.

The apologias come in two basic forms. The first holds that Bush is a successful conservative president. To the extent that he's fallen short, it's due to factors beyond his control, the venality of his enemies, or his inexplicable failure to publicize his many triumphs. Proponents of this line of thinking often find Bush's unpopularity baffling. "It may be that his administration will end up winning a war, keeping the country safe, and presiding over decent economic growth—and people will still disapprove of Bush, " wrote Standard editor Bill Kristol earlier this year.

The economy is a particular source of mystification for the right—or, at least, it was until a few months ago. "If things are so bad, why are they so good?" asked puzzled cnbc host Lawrence Kudlow last year, before concluding, "[W]e're virtually guaranteed of a Goldilocks soft landing or better—and certainly not a recession." Kristol, again, boasted a year ago, "The Bush tax cuts have been thoroughly vindicated."

Why did the public not see this? Conservatives reject the obvious explanation for widespread economic pessimism throughout the Bush years—i.e., the unprecedented lack of wage growth for all but the very rich—in favor of exotic theories about media bias or Iraq war fatigue darkening people's view of the economy. And, they insist, the subsequent financial collapse was not a function of Bush-era policies, but merely bad luck.

The second defense of the Bush years takes the opposite view, holding that Bush was both unconservative and unsuccessful. Indeed, by this increasingly popular analysis, Bush failed because he strayed from the true faith. For instance, in his 2008 Weekly Standard cover story "The Politics of a Failed Presidency," Jeffrey Bell blamed Condoleezza Rice for being too "deferential to outside and internal opponents of Bush's policies" and Bush for not making his tax cuts permanent. (How he could have secured the necessary 60 Senate votes, Bell did not say). If only Bush had really tried being a tax-cutter and foreign policy neocon!

But to these critics Bush's primary ideological apostasy is that he supposedly presided over vast new spending increases. Both Democrats and Republicans have gleefully taken up the charge—the former in order to discredit Bush, the latter to shield conservatism from the stench of his failure. It's a trumped-up indictment. Bush did spend generously on defense and homeland security, with conservative approval, but domestic discretionary spending actually declined from 3.1 percent of GDP to 2.8 percent. It is true that Bush approved a vast new prescription drug benefit. But 89 percent of Americans believed in 2000 that Medicare should have such a benefit. Bush's critics on the right have no explanation for how he could have gotten elected in 2000 without promising one or reelected in 2004 without following through. Still, the critique has taken hold. The Democracy Corps poll found that, by a 17-point margin, Republicans attribute their party's failures in 2006 and 2008 to its insufficient conservatism. (Voters as a whole attributed it to excessive conservatism.)

The enthusiasm generated by Palin shows that the party intends, wittingly or not, to replicate not just Bush's policies but his whole operating style. She is the most Bush-like figure conceivable. Jeb Bush would be a far more dramatic departure from the incumbent than her. Her utter lack of interest in policy, her obsession with certitude ("you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission"), her folksiness masking incoherence—all reflect the style of The Decider. The way Palin filled her government with grossly unqualified high school cronies eerily apes even the Bushian qualities that many conservatives have come to regret.

Conservatives even defend her just as they defended Bush, by swatting away any qualms about her qualifications or intellect as coastal snobbery toward regular folk. After Palin's nomination, Lowry wrote, "[T]here's a tone of contemptuous dismissiveness about the experience that she does have—fueled no doubt by her career in 'fly-over country.'" Contemptuous dismissiveness? Lack of experience? Conservatives may not realize it, but another George W. Bush is exactly what they want.

This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.