Submitted for your approval:
A controversial president almost worshiped by the rank and file of his party and reviled as the second coming of Hitler by his opponents. He has faced a deep recession brought about by the collapse of a financial bubble just as his presidency began.
He was elected promising to be a uniter who could bring people together and run a truly bi-partisan administration with the co-operation and support of his political opponents. However, once in power, he has excluded the minority party from decision making. He has engaged in controversial policy decisions which have damaged his standing among independent voters. He has developed the habit of passing bills on a party-line basis, often without the support of a single member of the opposition, sometimes using an arcane legislative process known as “reconciliation” to ram through controversial laws. His opponents blame him for creating this atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. His supporters counter that his opponents are deranged ideologues who are putting their hatred of the president above the national interest.
His opponents accuse him of recklessly endangering America’s solvency by running enormous fiscal deficits. He and his supporters counter that the deficits are (a) necessary; (b) affordable; (c) the fault of the previous administration; and (d) in any case, being caused by his opponents’ own pet projects. The recovery from the mess he inherited has been slow and dissatisfying. His opponents claim the anaemic recovery of the economy is the fault of him and his policies. He and his supporters have alternated between claiming that he is doing a good job in bad circumstances and asserting that the recovery would be stronger if his opponents were prepared to co-operate with him in passing beneficial legislation.
He has presided over a bitter geographic polarisation of the country. In some parts of the country, it is impossible to find anyone who will admit to supporting him. In other parts of the country, people loudly denounce his opponents using the most stinging pejoratives to describe them while any opponents he has must keep their mouths shut or risk social opprobrium.
He is culturally in sync with his half of the country, reflecting their social values to a T and is a popular and well liked guest on their favoured talk shows. To the other half of the country, he might just as well be from Mars. His opponents regard him as clueless and make cruel comments about his understanding of public policies, relishing every gaffe and deconstructing his every statement to try to demonstrate his unfitness to lead. His supporters interpret this distain as representing bigotry, sometimes directed against him for his background, sometimes directed against his coalition of supporters, who his opponents supposedly regard as their inferiors.
Having come to power, promising a nation weary of “nation building” abroad that he would concentrate on domestic concerns, he has watched his domestic agenda gradually derail and has increasingly taken refuge in an activist foreign policy, fighting Wilsonian wars for democracy in the Middle East.
He has just fought and won an ugly “get out the base” re-election campaign. He has fought that election based upon (a) national security, the line being that he has “kept America safe” from terrorists; (b) the cultural resentments of his base towards his opponents, playing on the notion that they represent a nasty, contemptuous, self-serving elite; (c) casting his opponent as a rich out of touch aristocrat whose loyalties to the nation are dubious and running character-assassinating ads in swing states; and (d) using cultural wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage to gin up enthusiasm and turnout among the base, all in an effort to distract an electorate from the fact that the economy is a mess and their living standards are going down.
Nobody denied that it was a gamble. His opponents sceptically questioned his ability to distract voters from the economic fundamentals. They claimed that the turnout models that he and his team were using to calculate support levels were flawed and overestimated his ability to get out the base.
They were wrong. The gamble paid off. He eked out a narrow and bloody victory in the popular vote. Moreover, in addition to thwarting his opponent at the top of the ticket, he had down-the-ticket coat-tails, which allowed his party to strengthen and consolidate their control of the Senate.
After four years of bitter acrimony, the sweet taste of success and opponents asking themselves whether they can ever win again without completely revamping themselves.
The year is 2004 and the president to whom I refer is none other than George Walker Bush. However, those who thought I was talking about Barack Hussein Obama in 2012 could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, every statement I have made above about George W. Bush could apply equally to Barack Obama. To have campaigned as the anti-Bush and ended up having a presidency and re-election campaign so startlingly similar must be truly depressing to those who believed in “Hope” and “Change”. What is even more depressing about winning such a dissatisfying victory is that the history of 2004 to 2008 gives us a blueprint for what happens next.
In 2005, the insurgency operations of Iraqi groups opposed to US occupation became so great as to make a nonsense of Bush’s assertion of “mission accomplished“. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina blew a levee-sized hole in Bush’s reputation for responsible disaster management, which he had undeservedly earned after 9/11.
In 2006, the Ted Haggard gay sex scandal and the Mark Foley page-boy scandal made a mockery of Bush’s wedge social conservatism, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney and Randy “Duke” Cunningham demonstrated a fetid culture of corruption among Congressional Republicans and the Iraq war dragged on with mounting American casualties. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House was forced to resign over corruption allegations, which helped set the stage for the loss of the Republican House majority.
As the pivotal real estate market began to falter in 2006 (with consequences nobody in officialdom got until it was too late), Bush ally George Allen threw away his Virginia Senate seat by throwing a bizarre racial epithet at one of his opponent’s supporters, thus losing the GOP control of the Senate. In 2007, former Bush administration official J Steven Griles was jailed for corruption, showing that the culture of graft permeated the administration itself, not just his party.
All of this tore Bush’s and the Republican Party’s reputation to shreds even before the sub-prime collapse and the ensuing economic meltdown (the legacy of the Bush administration’s greatest public policy follies) brought the US and world economies to their knees. Some of the disasters (like Iraq) were truly Bush’s legacy. With others (like Katrina), the culpability was perhaps more arguable. As for the scandals, none of them implicated him directly. But ultimately, every sin of cynicism and incompetence was visited down on the head of Bush and his party and the manner in which he governed in his first term and was re-elected directly influenced the political fallout from these disasters.
Given the similarities between Bush 2004 and Obama 2012, the “shellacking” that Obama and America will ultimately have suffered may well be judged by history to only be beginning now.
In Part II of this Post, I will be examining what factors generated yesterday’s result and what the implications for the future may be.