GOP plan: Bring Dubya back!

Look beneath the surface, and a hot new plan for the party's comeback is really just George W. Bush redux

Topics: George W. Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Conservatives, Conservativism, Republican Party, The Right, Ross Douthat, National Review, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, No Child Left Behind, Karl Rove, Welfare, Grover Norquist, Editor's Picks,

GOP plan: Bring Dubya back! (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

It’s fast becoming a cliché, but it’s nevertheless the truth: If Republicans plan to win the White House any time soon, they’re going to have to change. And that change will have to be more substantial than simply asking the Romney clan to ease up a bit on the whole public service thing, or churning out more Spanish-language campaign ads during the next election. To borrow one of the president’s favorite phrases, when it comes to an altered Republican Party, there’s got to be a “there” there. Singing some new lyrics atop the same old tune just won’t cut it. (Sorry, Senator Rubio.)

So the question is not so much whether the GOP should change but, rather, how? Two options commonly proffered are as follows: Republicans could follow the lead of Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and push for even smaller government (I call this the “more cowbell” school of thought). Or they could look instead to the small but influential group of right-wing intellectuals claiming to offer a new path: the “conservative reformers.” The decision looks so simple. Either one step forward, or two steps back.

Spend some time reading the conservative reformers, though, and you’ll discover things are a wee bit more complicated than that. The choice isn’t quite so stark. Because rather than offering a fresh, new way to package conservatism for the 21st century, it turns out that the conservative reformers, whether they know it or not, are resurrecting an idea whose time has come, and gone, and perhaps now come again. They’re bringing compassionate conservatism back. Or at least they’re trying.

Before going any further, though, we should define our terms. What is compassionate conservatism? It would be an oversimplification to call it the conservatives’ version of Clintonism — but only a little. In a 2009 essay about the phenomenon for the National Interest, the New America Foundation’s Steven M. Teles described the basic conceit of compassionate conservatism as “an effort to shift the basic axis of partisan…from means to ends.” That’s a fancy way of saying that compassionate conservatism takes the welfare state for granted, whereas more doctrinaire conservatism (think Paul Ryan) seeks to burn it to the ground instead.

Most lefties consider “compassionate conservatism” to be little more than spin. But let’s stipulate that compassion is relative, that my bleeding heart may be your cold indifference, and that there’s a genuine distinction between a compassionate conservative like, say, George W. Bush and a more austere, doctrinaire right-winger like, say, Paul Ryan. Through left-wing eyes, that difference may be slight. And it may nevertheless result in bad policy (cough, No Child Left Behind, cough). But it’s no less real than the divide between the “pro-business” New Democrats and old fashioned liberals.

Because many activists blame compassionate conservatism for the failure of the second Bush presidency, however, its advocates are in something of a retreat. This explains why a small group of right-wing pundits — the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, National Review’s Reihan Salam, and Forbes’ Pascal Emmanuel Gobry chief among them — has shied from the label. For example, in their influential 2005 Weekly Standard essay, “The Party of Sam’s Club,” Douthat and Salam claim that compassionate conservatism “strikes the wrong note”; and in a recent Forbes post, “A Reform Conservative Manifesto,” Gobry writes that “there were many problems with compassionate conservatism” (though he does give Bush credit for trying something new).

But if we keep in mind the main sticking point between compassionate conservatives and their traditional colleagues — the idea that government is not everywhere and always the problem, that it can indeed be used to right wrongs and improve people’s lives — it’s hard to conclude that the conservative reformers are indeed offering anything substantially new. That’s not to say Douthat, Salam, and Gobry are pitching the same material, verbatim, that George W. Bush and Karl Rove did; Bush was never as obsessed with maintaining the traditional two-parent family as they. It is to say, however, that the differences between then and now are basically minor, and that the reformers are tweaking an old formula rather than remaking conservatism anew.

What’s especially troubling is that these changes, though small, tend to lean in the direction of making compassionate conservatism even worse. Whereas compassionate conservatives tried to woo minority voters by focusing on education reform, the conservative reformers prefer instead to lock in that dwindling subset of sometimes-Republicans: working-class whites. Douthat and Salam’s essay has much to say about “pro-family” tax reform — they even flirt with endorsing wage subsidies and Romneycare — and the struggling economic station of the working class. But when it comes to minority voters, the authors rather blithely conclude that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has rendered futile any attempts to court African Americans. Gobry, meanwhile, is too busy unpersuasively explaining why Ronald Reagan was secretly pro-government.

I don’t believe conservative reformers have so little to say on race due to bigotry. But the focus on lower-scale whites is not only strategically questionable (it’s far from clear that it’s “working class” whites who vote GOP) but, when coming from a group of thinkers who are ostensibly proposing something new, logically problematic. If we compare the conservative reformers to Grover Norquist or Paul Ryan, they do indeed look like a different, more reasonable — and, yes, more compassionate — breed of Republican. But that’s a consequence of the GOP’s sprint to the Right during the Obama years, not of a more substantial sea change in Republican opinion.

To be blunt: While it’s nice to see high-profile Republican pundits questioning their party’s recent commitment to cut government for its own sake, the conservative reformers are far from offering something the rest of us might consider genuine reform. What’s on offer, instead, is compassionate conservatism, a Bush-era idea, with less compassion and maybe a tax credit or two. What makes the whole exercise all the more disappointing is that even these reforms, meager and hesitant as they are, have picked up no traction among rank-and-file conservatives and other party elites. It’s enough to inspire a small measure of compassion, even among non-conservatives.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>