On July 29, President George W. Bush appeared at the Lincoln Electric Company in Euclid, Ohio, where he spoke about energy and then asked the audience for questions. The opportunity for people in a small town in the Midwest to pose a question directly to the president of the United States is a rare one, possibly a once in a lifetime experience. "And now I'd like to answer some questions, if you have any," said Bush. But his request was returned with silence. Bush filled the air with an awkward joke: "After seven-and-a-half years, if I can't figure out how to dodge them, I shouldn't..." The audience tittered nervously. Bush continued, "If you don't have any questions, I can tell you a lot of interesting stories." The crowd laughed again, but no one raised a hand. "Okay," said Bush, "I'll tell you a story."
Despite the daily tracking polls and the back-and-forth of the candidates, the underlying story of the 2008 presidential campaign remains the Bush presidency and how it brought about the end of the long era of Republican political dominance that began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon. That story is the subject of my new book, "The Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing Party."
Bush has the lowest sustained popularity among modern presidents. The Republican Party has fallen farther behind the Democratic Party in party identification and favorable ratings than it has in decades. Democrats are poised to make dramatic gains in their numbers in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The previously little-known Senator Barack Obama could have vaulted to become the presumptive Democratic nominee only as a response to Bush. Senator John McCain's emergence at the presumptive Republican nominee is also one of Bush's consequences. Without the crackup of the conservative movement and the fragmentation of the Republican primary field, McCain would not have had his opening. His candidacy is as much a manifestation of the shattering of the Republican phalanx as Obama's. Whatever the outcome of their contest, the party as it was is over. Today no one can even envision when the Republicans will control the presidency and both houses of the Congress as they did just two years ago.
Bush's decline is an end to more than family dynasty; it is an end of political empire. Bush, "The Decider," was the implementer of complementary radical plans for an imperial presidency and a one-party government to be ruled for generations by Republicans.
Dick Cheney, whose Secret Service code name when he was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, "Backseat," suggested his invisible influence, was the originator of the imperial presidency. It was a overarching idea he took from the Nixon White House, when he was then counselor Donald Rumsfeld's deputy, and elaborated as vice president into a doctrine of an unaccountable and unfettered "unitary executive" that had the right unto itself even to order torture.
Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, whom he has called "The Architect" and "Turdblossom," was the designer of the grand realignment that would lock in Republican control for time immemorial.
But Bush's fiascos, from Gulf to shining Gulf, from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to FEMA in New Orleans, were the culmination of Republican ideology and have unraveled Republican strengths built up over 40 years. I explain the scope of Bush's damage to his party in a talk on July 31 at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., which can be viewed here.
Though the Republican era is drawing to an end, a new Democratic one is not inevitable. Its dawning would require not only winning the White House and the Congress but also governing together successfully, which has not been possible since Lyndon Johnson was president.
In the meantime, the growing intensity of the day-to-day campaign has turned the focus away from the Bush presidency. Bush has achieved the weird effect of being the incumbent, still responsible, and increasingly ignored as somehow irrelevant. The silence that greeted Bush in Euclid, Ohio is symptomatic of his fading while still being present. Dominating politics just a short time ago, his elusiveness can only work to the advantage of the Republicans. If the Democratic campaign allows him to escape from being in the picture it will have forgotten a cardinal law of politics that voters can be led into the future only by making the election a referendum on the past.