In Bush's Wake, A New Political Landscape In a few days, George W. Bush's presidency will come to a close. He leaves the political landscape considerably altered in his wake: The path to the White House is now a grass-roots one, and a once-strong GOP coalition is now shattered.
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In Bush's Wake, A New Political Landscape

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In Bush's Wake, A New Political Landscape

In Bush's Wake, A New Political Landscape

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One week from today, President George W. Bush will leave office. When Mr. Bush entered the White House eight years ago, his party controlled the House and the Senate. Now, the Republicans have lost them both, not to mention the White House. NPR's Mara Liasson reports on President Bush's political legacy.

MARA LIASSON: When George W. Bush was asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson what happened in the 2008 elections, he didn't mince words.

(Soundbite of TV show "World News with Charles Gibson," December 1, 2008)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it was a repudiation of Republicans - you know, I'm sure some people voted for Barack Obama because of me.

LIASSON: And that is a remarkable reversal from the president's decisive re-election victory in 2004 and his hopes for a lasting Republican majority.

Professor DAN SCHNUR (Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; Director, Jesse Unruh Institute for Politics, University of Southern California): It's almost frightening at how quick the political landscape has turned.

LIASSON: Dan Schnur is a longtime Republican strategist who directs the Jesse Unruh Institute for Politics at the University of Southern California.

Prof. SCHNUR: Four years ago, there were books being written by very smart people from all political ideologies about an enduring Republican political majority.

LIASSON: Today, Republicans must contemplate some sobering political facts: on electoral geography, where they just lost Republican strongholds like Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina; and on electoral demography, where Democrats beat them two-to-one 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 his Republican majority was short-lived.

Mr. KARL ROVE (Former Deputy Chief of Staff, George W. Bush Administration): Well, not very durable in the short run, but let's see what happens.

LIASSON: Rove looks back on three key factors in 2008.

Mr. ROVE: We had an unpopular war, we had an erratic and lackluster campaign on the part of the Republicans, and we had then the worst financial crisis in at least 50 years, if not more.

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

Former Representative NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia; Former Speaker of the House): 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. And '06 and '08 will be looked back upon as a period where 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.

LIASSON: Rove rejects that analysis.

Mr. ROVE: 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. 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.

LIASSON: And that's the root the Obama campaign followed, increasing turnout among Democrats while pulling over small but important bits of the Republican vote. Ironically, part of President Bush's political legacy may be the model of grassroots 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 Kerry campaign.

Mr. ROVE: I don't want to diminish Obama's very thoughtful and skillful and tactically brilliant campaign. They said, we're going to study what Bush did in 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.

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

Rep. GINGRICH: He brought social conservatism much further into the center of power than it had been in 70 years. He appointed two very solid- conservative Supreme Court justices who will shape policy for a generation. There are some things George W. Bush can go home and feel pretty proud about.

LIASSON: In the long run, says Dan Schnur, Mr. Bush's political legacy will depend on how successful President-elect Obama will be in cementing his own majority.

Prof. SCHNUR: 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. If he does cement this type of support, these various voter groups become Democrats for election cycles for many years to come, and that's something that obviously looks very poorly toward the Bush political legacy.

LIASSON: But if in four years voters turn back to the GOP, George Bush's political legacy may look very different, indeed. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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