Bush strategist Matthew Dowd’s very public break with the president he helped elect twice, which was aired on the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times, is sure to be viewed by many Republicans inside the White House and out as an act of rank disloyalty.
But if you concede that the last thing the GOP needs to worry about right now is saving Bush’s face, Dowd may have unwittingly provided his party with its saving grace.
At a minimum, Dowd has done Republicans an enormous favor by calling out the elephant of all elephants in the room and potentially opening up a frank intra-party discussion about Bush’s manifold failures — not just as a President but also as a conservative — and his toxicity with swing voters.
This dissatisfaction with Bush has been brewing for some time on the right — not just with the President’s bungling of Iraq, but for his administration’s infuriating incompetence on Katrina and many other basic governmental functions, his hypocrisies and heresies on spending, and his big government approach to education. And it’s only intensified since the Republicans’ dismal performance in the 2006 midterms, which have been widely interpreted as a repudiation of Bush’s leadership.
Yet even with Bush’s approval ratings still stuck in Carter country at the moment and showing no signs of moving up, most Republicans have kept their grumbling below the surface. The leading GOP presidential candidates in particular have been exceedingly hesitant to challenge Bush even indirectly, mostly out of fear of alienating primary voters who supposedly maintain a strong connection to the current commander-in-chief.
It’s doubtful that Dowd’s break with Bush will on its own catalyze a tongue-biting tipping point — especially given Dowd’s questionable standing as a former Democrat — let alone a full revolt. But he has made it safer to ask out loud some of the unsettling questions many Republicans have been raising in private. And it may push party leaders and strategists to challenge their assumptions about Bush’s place in the hearts of the base.
That’s not bad for an operative who, unlike the bulk of his fellow Bushies, is purposely staying out of the Republican free-for-all to succeed W. But it could turn out to be just the beginning of Dowd’s unintended impact on the current campaign.
Indeed, more than just setting the stage for a long-overdue conversation, Dowd’s denunciation has created an opportunity and a strategy for a much-anticipated candidate to change the course of the 2008 nomination race.
Conservatives have been archly ambivalent about their current pack of less-than-inspiring contenders (witness the Fred Thompson boomlet). What better way for a dark horse or newcomer to get noticed and gain traction than daring to mount a targeted rebellion against Bush-ism and force the front-runners to choose sides?
Some will consider that a suicide mission. But consider the Howard Dean parallel. Dean was able to capture the fancy of activists and rocket out of nowhere in 2004 by running as much against Clinton’s legacy as Bush’s — and Clinton’s popularity upon leaving office dwarfs Bush’s numbers today.
Dean smartly avoided attacking Clinton by name, but the hard-line, anti-triangulating liberals he was courting knew exactly what and whom he was talking about when he declared that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” That motivating message was not enough to overcome Dean’s liabilities as a candidate, but it did propel him to literally take over the party.
It’s not that hard to imagine a Republican insurgent (such as Huckabee or Gingrich) making a similar splash with a similar rap that taps into the growing discontent among the Republican base about the party’s direction. Especially if they paired their message with a bold reform agenda that could first win the hearts of conservatives and then the trust of independents who will decide the general election.
If that insurgent wanted to be really provocative, they could even play off of Bush’s campaign mantra in 2000 and proclaim that they are running to “restore credibility and competence to the White House.”
This may be an effective way for an insurgent to elbow their way into contention, but is it ultimately a viable strategy for winning the nomination? It’s hard to say now, particularly without access to sophisticated polling about the primary electorate’s evolving views on Bush.
That said, it’s worth noting that current frontrunners McCain and Giuliani — who recent polls show would beat the top Democratic candidates head-to-head — derive much of their crossover strength from their record of being independent and rising above partisan politics to do what’s right. That suggests that not being Bush is not that bad.
But no matter who the Republican nominee is, one thing seems sure: if a leading architect of President Bush’s reelection now believes John Kerry was right, you can sure bet that there are millions of more Americans in the middle and on the center right who have completely lost faith in Bush and his brand of politics.
Which means that if the Republicans don’t find a way to separate themselves from their biggest millstone since Richard Milhous Nixon, they will likely lose the White House as well.
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