When President Bush's image was beamed inside the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night, GOP faithful roared in appreciation of the man who has led them to victory in the past two presidential elections. But the party's titular leader has been largely an afterthought for Republicans this week after his originally scheduled appearance Monday night was washed out by Hurricane Gustav.
The way things happened may reflect some of the ambivalence that Bush's party – and Sen. John McCain's advisers – feel about the president. While many of the delegates largely respect Bush for his values and wartime leadership, he has bequeathed McCain a difficult political landscape that practically demands that the senator from Arizona run a campaign distancing himself from the Bush administration.
By almost every objective standard, Bush will leave his party worse off than it was when he was nominated eight years ago in Philadelphia. During his tenure, the GOP not only lost control of Congress but saw its dominance of statehouses slip while losing about 200 seats in state legislatures. More than half of registered voters now identify themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents – a significantly more Democratic tilt than at this time in any of the past three presidential election cycles. And Republicans enter the final stretch of the campaign season at a substantial financial disadvantage to their rivals.
A McCain victory could radically change this picture. But every bit of evidence suggests that Bush and his longtime political adviser Karl Rove were unable to achieve their ambitious and long-held objectives of expanding the GOP base and creating a durable Republican majority. Their hope of ending traditional Democratic dominance on such issues as health care (with a new Medicare prescription drug plan) and education (with the No Child Left Behind law) while growing the GOP tent to include more Latinos and African Americans has all but ended. Younger voters are fleeing the GOP in droves, prompting fears that if there is to be a party realignment, it probably will be a Democratic one. The Iraq war, meanwhile, has eroded the traditional advantage on national security issues.
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If McCain does defeat Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in November, he will be sailing against very strong headwinds. “We're in the worst political environment for Republicans since Nixon,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said.
In describing what McCain will say in his acceptance speech this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close McCain ally, said he outlined this succinct message Tuesday: “Wake up. We are a party in retreat and we need to regroup, change the way we do business.”
Rove took exception to this dismal view. “Please tell me why we are facing a presidential election that is dead even,” he said. “No picture is completely good or completely bad – and the fact the GOP nominee is competitive is both a testament to Senator McCain and a sign the GOP can now fight in a tough environment.”
Rove argued that Bush began to reposition the Republican Party on domestic issues such as health care, Social Security, immigration, education reform and a new prescription drug program for Medicare. “He has worked hard to modernize the party, to reinvigorate its grass-roots activities, to encourage a diverse and forward-looking group of conservative candidates, and to make sure the party is amply funded to undertake its work,” Rove said. “He has changed the mindset of the party so it can be more effective in whatever political climate it finds itself.”
It was the Iraq war that undermined his once commanding position with voters, in the view of many of his supporters. “If the Iraq war had gone well, Bush's influence on the GOP would rival (Ronald) Reagan's,” said Pete Wehner, a former Bush White House aide.