In Bush's Wake, A New Political Landscape

This is the fifth in a series examining President Bush's legacy.

What They're Saying

Extended conversations with an academic, a historian and a journalist who have followed the career of George W. Bush can be heard — and downloaded — here.

When he moved into the White House eight years ago, George W. Bush's party also controlled the House and the Senate. Now the Republicans have lost all three.

The short-lived GOP majority will likely be part of President Bush's enduring political legacy, along with the grass-roots campaigning that led to his victory in 2004 — and which his successor took to a whole new level.

Bush will leave behind a considerably altered political landscape when his presidency comes to a close in a few days.

When Bush was asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson what happened in the 2008 election, he didn't mince words.

"I think it was a repudiation of Republicans. And I'm sure some people voted for Barack Obama because of me," Bush said.

It was a remarkable reversal from the president's decisive re-election victory in 2004 and his hopes for a lasting Republican majority.

"It's almost frightening at how quick the political landscape has turned," he said.

What Was To Blame?

Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist who directs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says that four years ago, "there were books being written by very smart people from all political ideologies about an enduring Republican political majority."

Today, Republicans must contemplate some sobering political facts. They have lost Republican strongholds like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina; and Democrats beat them 2-1 among Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting group in America, and young voters, who are forming what could be lifelong political preferences.

Even Karl Rove, the architect of the Bush political strategy, admits that his Republican majority was "not very durable in the short run" — but, he adds, "let's see what happens."

Rove looks back on three key factors in 2008: "We had an unpopular war; we had an erratic and a lackluster campaign on the part of the Republicans; and we had then the worst financial crisis in at least 50 years, if not more," he says.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered the great Republican victories in Congress in 1994, puts the blame elsewhere.

"The Bush failures to implement, starting really with Katrina; the Rove model of focusing on base mobilization; and the House and Senate Republicans losing total touch with their own voters — all of those things came together to be a disaster," Gingrich says. " '06 and '08 will be looked back upon as a period when we went from the potential for a governing majority — which we had as late as the summer of '04 — to throwing it all away, which is a pretty remarkable achievement. Democrats had almost nothing to do with it."

Rove rejects that analysis.

"I love how everybody gets it wrong. 2000 and 2004 were not base elections. Compassionate conservatism was about energizing the base and allowing the governor of Texas to go out and get people who would not normally vote Republican," Rove says. "And the campaign in 2004 was aimed at maximizing the strength among existing Republicans and then getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, getting working-class Democrats, getting 44 percent of the Latinos — all of these things were aimed at reaching outside the normal Republican base."

Obama May Affect Bush's Legacy

And that's the model that Obama followed — increasing turnout among Democrats while pulling over small but important bits of the Republican vote. Ironically, part of Bush's political legacy may be the model of grass-roots campaigning that carried him in 2004 — one the Obama team went to school on and then took to a whole new level.

In 2004, Rove helped generate an army of volunteers — mostly drawn from the evangelical community — who campaigned neighbor to neighbor and expanded the electorate in ways that surprised and overwhelmed the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

"I don't want to diminish Obama's very thoughtful and skillful and tactically brilliant campaign," Rove says. "They said, 'We're going to study what Bush did and the army of persuasion and duplicate it, and we're going to go out and try and get small but significant slices of what the other guy's coalition was in the past two elections.' "

Although Bush's party may be in retreat for now, Gingrich says Bush wrought other political changes that will last for a very long time.

"He brought social conservatism much further into the center of power than it had been in 70 years," Gingrich says. "He appointed two very solid conservative Supreme Court justices who will shape policy for generations. There are some things George W. Bush can go home and feel proud of."

In the long run, Schnur says, Bush's political legacy will depend on how successful Obama is at cementing his own majority.

"I guess the question that can't be answered for another four years is whether Barack Obama's victory this past November was an aberration or a forerunner of things to come," Schnur says. "If he does cement this type of support, these various voter groups become Democrats for election cycles for many years to come. That's something that obviously looks very poorly toward the Bush political legacy."

But if, in four years, voters turn back to the GOP, Bush's political legacy may look very different.

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