STATE OF THE UNION: Bush has jettisoned the good-government principles that underpin his party. That offers the Democrats an opening, but will they exploit it?

STATE OF THE UNION: Bush has jettisoned the good-government principles that underpin his party. That offers the Democrats an opening, but will they exploit it? - George W Bush, charge his opponents, is jejune, swaggering, extreme, and inarticulate. If they stick to that songsheet, the president has little to worry about: after all, the Democrats would say that. But he does have a weakness: he's not a good Republican. On key issues, Bush has jettisoned the good-government principles that underpin the Republican party. And that offers the Democrats an opening - if they're ruthless enough to exploit it.

by Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker - www.nickdenton.org
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

George W Bush, charge his opponents, is jejune, swaggering, extreme, and inarticulate. If they stick to that songsheet, the president has little to worry about: after all, the Democrats would say that. But he does have a weakness: he's not a good Republican. On key issues, Bush has jettisoned the good-government principles that underpin the Republican party. And that offers the Democrats an opening - if they're ruthless enough to exploit it.

Bush has enjoyed approval ratings that attach to wartime presidents; he has raised high levels of campaign funds, and Republicans have a lock on the South and are making inroads into the industrial Midwest. But rising unemployment and US casualties in Iraq have made Democrats think, for the first time since 11 September, that George Bush might be beatable.

His overall approval ratings have dropped below 60% for the first time since 9/11. On the question of economic management, usually a strong indicator of electoral prospects, Americans are dissatisfied.

Bush is again the object of mockery on cable broadcasts such as Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Howard Dean's Democratic candidacy has excited the activists - he raised more than dollars 7 million in campaign funding in the second quarter.

The best measure of the changing political weather is that Democratic party operatives are floating the idea that Al Gore might return for a rematch.

So, how lucky for the president that his opponents are so busy providing therapy for Democratic activists. A gun-toting fiscal conservative, Dean has emerged only by outright opposition to the war in Iraq. Others, such as John Kerry, are following him to the Left.

It's standard practice in US presidential elections: win the primaries on the flank and come back to the centre for the main contest. But one feels like a kibitzer at a chess game: the lethal move is so obvious, but your guy just can't see it.

The Democratic presidential candidate should appropriate the traditional Republican values of limited government, individual liberty and fiscal responsibility. Because these positions are up for grabs. George Bush has out-pandered the Democrats in providing prescription drug benefits to pensioners, agricultural subsidies, and protection to steelworkers.

In so doing, he has handed the Democrats arguments to present to the largest voting bloc, the moderate suburban voters.

The Republicans have allowed federal spending to rise at the fastest clip in 20 years. In 2000, Clinton's last year in office, total outlays accounted for 18.4% of GDP. By 2002, the budget consumed 19.5% of GDP.

Less than half of that growth can be explained by increased defence outlays since 9/11. The recession? Well, both Bush Senior and Ronald Reagan contended with economic contraction without letting federal spending rip.

According to libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, Reagan was able to reduce non-defence discretionary spending by 14% in his first term; Bush will have overseen a rise of 18%. The Bush Republicans have become the party of big government.

In introducing steel tariffs, maintaining trade barriers against textile imports and boosting farm subsidies, Bush has undermined the traditional Republican commitment to free trade. The administration justifies its actions as increasing room for manoeuvre in broader trade negotiations But it's more like a move designed to win the farmbelt and rustbelt states. A tough opponent could present the policy as a new tax on food, clothing and cars, to fund the Bush re-election campaign.

The Bush administration is notoriously cosy with business: fewer than a dozen executives have received jail sentences, despite corporate wrongdoings of the late 1990s; the administration has abandoned efforts to curtail Microsoft; and its appointees have given the green light to monopolistic consolidation in local television and newspaper media.

Bush has largely abandoned the Atlantic Alliance, a cornerstone of Republican foreign policy. I'm not suggesting that foreign policy is a popularity contest; Americans are in the mood for Realpolitik. Yet a Democrat candidate could make one powerful point: an American commitment to set the world to rights without the support of allies is prohibitively expensive. Republicans are supposed to avoid open-ended international commitments.

Under George Bush, the federal bureaucracy has seized on 9/11 to expand surveillance of American citizens, tie together information databases, and generally increase the power of the state over individuals. The Republicans are no longer the political home for libertarian voters.

I'm convinced that a candidate running against Bush on this platform could win the coasts, a large slice of the American West and maybe even some of the New South. There's only one problem: he would not survive the Democratic primary.

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