In 2012, the GOP Candidates Are Still Coming to Terms With the Bush Years

Thanks to PolicyMic for holding this exchange. The contrast between this year's Republican primary race and the 2008 Democratic one is worth reckoning with, because they are so jarringly different that it is hard to believe that they are occurring in the same country, just four years apart. It's like comparing an Abrams tank and my kids' scooters.

Start with the field of candidates: In 2008, even the second- and third-tier Democrats were semi-plausible – Edwards, Biden, Dodd, Richardson. Say what you will about those guys and their personal foibles, they were a cut above Bachmann/Perry/Santorum/Cain. Not surprisingly, the debates in that round were far more substantive than the delightful reality TV series that this year's Republican debates have been – remember all the talk about the finer points of the Democrats' health plans? Yawn.

Most of all, though, you had a clash of heavyweights in the top tier – two candidates in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who both claimed powerful fund-raising operations, extensive organizations, and deeply compelling personal narratives. The outlines of the showdown were clear: hard-bitten experience and cynical gamesmanship against callow youth and eloquent idealism. They even had a physical encounter on the tarmac! It really was as good as primary politics gets.

Compared with ... what? A frontrunner by default, Mitt Romney, a quarter-billionaire businessman making a dutiful second attempt to achieve what his father could not. And beyond that ... a Ferris Wheel of challengers, the latest of whom lacks the minimal resources to defend himself on the Iowa airwaves or get himself on the ballot in his adopted home state. The early-state organizing has been so anemic that the Obama reelection team can claim to have more people on the ground in Iowa than any of the Republicans. The race could be over by the end of January, with Romney running the table with a string of under-whelming victories, or it could dribble on through the spring. Either outcome is dispiriting.

What to make of this? Why did no one else step forward to challenge the eminently beatable Romney and Obama? Some Republicans say it's just a matter of timing, that their party is in the middle of a rebuilding – equivalent to, say, where the Democrats were in 2004. But this understates the diagnosis. You have to go back much further to come close to finding a time when the Democrats were as unmoored – perhaps the mid-80s?

The Republicans, post-2008, needed a long time in the wilderness to come to terms with the Bush years, the post-crash economy, and the changing electorate (even with the emergence of Marco Rubio and Nicki Haley, the lack of diversity in GOP ranks is stunning.) Instead, the party was yanked back into power almost in spite of itself in 2010, as a result of voters' deep bitterness over the slow recovery. This allowed the party to pretend it had resolved its internal confusion and contradictions in just two years. It had not, as we are seeing now. It’ll take much, much longer.

Photo Credit: Dave Delay

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Alec MacGillis

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic, now serving as the magazine’s correspondent for the 2012 campaign. He came to the magazine in the August after five years as at the Washington Post, where he covered national politics and domestic policy. He previously worked at the Baltimore Sun, Concord Monitor (NH) and several smaller papers. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan during the 2010-2011 academic year.

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