In 2000, then Governor Bush trumpeted a record of “reaching across the aisle” and ending partisan gridlock as the crux of his presidential platform. Bush was to be a compassionate conservative: a leader who, despite strong Republican values, would resist the calls of party militants and set a more conciliatory and bipartisan national agenda. After his election, the president led us to believe that his commitment to “compassionate conservatism” was unwavering: Bush painted himself as a bold reformer, unafraid of working with both Democrats and Republicans to rework the social infrastructure of America. As Republicans gained control of Congress in 2003, the president appeared to step back from his previous commitments; new Bush rhetoric revealed bipartisanship to be little more than a buzzword. The drive for consensus was replaced by increasingly ideological legislation; Democrat concerns were ignored, filibusters became commonplace, and the tone of debate turned divisive and shrill.
The 2004 election presents President Bush with an opportunity to dramatically reshape the Republican Party. Bush has already sown the seeds of this reform; through his policies on education, immigration and Medicare, the president has laid the framework for a new Republican constituency. Rather than recapturing his former image and fighting for his more moderate proposals, Bush has increasingly heeded the calls of the radical right. Believing that he is vulnerable, the president has moved to consolidate support among his core conservative base. Instead of moving towards the political center and sponsoring legislation aimed to truly benefit the country, Bush has become more dogmatic, more geared towards special interests, and less able to achieve the reforms he prescribed at the start of his term. As a Republican, I support President Bush in his reelection bid. To beat John Kerry, Bush must abandon his ultraconservative right flank and distance himself from the old core of the Republican Party. The president must be the compassionate conservative he promised us he would be.
The Bush campaign team is staking the election on national security and social values; as the war in Iraq worsens and the current administration continues to be assailed by the Sept. 11 Commission, greater emphasis will be shifted to issues ranging from abortion to gun control and gay rights. Instead of reaching out to capture independent voters, Bush seems intent on mobilizing old-guard Republican militants and shifting his agenda to more orthodox GOP positions. What Bush must realize is that the traditional Republicanism of Gingrich, Nixon and Reagan no longer holds currency with the larger American electorate; the demographic groups which support such values are in an ever shrinking minority. The president must expand his base — not seek to consolidate an inadequate one.
The Bush proposals on Medicare, immigration and education could represent the crowning achievements of the administration; instead, misplaced priorities have led to their atrophy. The more liberal orientation of these platforms resulted in “open rebellion” by many Republican officials. Instead of promoting progressive reform, many members of GOP stubbornly attacked the president for betraying the principles of the party. The capitulation of Bush to these radical elements may signal the death knell of his presidency; Americans are frustrated with under-funded programs and unfulfilled promises. By devoting the financial resources of his Administration to No Child Left Behind and realistic Medicare reform, the President will demonstrate his ability to transcend the partisan divide which has consumed Washington. Republicans, after their success in the 2002 mid-term elections, have retreated into a shell in which all compromise is to be regarded as a sign of weakness. By fighting the traditional Republican notion that “all government is bad government,” Bush can demonstrate that his guarantees in 2000 were more than empty rhetoric.
With immigration reform, the stakes run even higher. When the president announced his new policy designs earlier this year, he was met with significant resistance from fellow Republicans. Rather than embracing this moderate proposal, many members of the GOP stubbornly refused to admit that a problem even exists. I am alarmed by the willingness of the president to abandon such important programs after encountering only preliminary resistance. By replacing innovation with traditional orthodoxy and radicalization, Bush has alienated many of the voters who so strongly backed his candidacy in 2000.
I find President Bush to be a deeply caring man. I believe that he has been confronted with remarkable challenges over the course of his term, and he has responded to them admirably. I am confident that he possesses the leadership and vision to guide America for another four years. I am, however, concerned that by pandering to the more ideological, right-leaning elements within the Republican Party, Bush will not get that chance. The future of the Republican Party lies not within the dogma of the Reagan era — the commitments of compassionate conservatism, and a moderate approach to social and economic policy — is the direction which the GOP must move in to survive. I certainly hope that President Bush reaches this conclusion before the 2004 election. I, for one, am not looking forward to four years under John Kerry.
Al Jiwa is a sophomore in Pierson College. He is executive director of the Yale College Republicans.