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June 13, 2014 12:34 PM Alternative Memories of the Bush Administration

By Ed Kilgore

Before we leave Defeat of Eric Cantor week, there’s an important aspect of conservative grievances with the Republican Establishment that makes all the talk of immigration reform or the Ryan-Murray Budget or Defunding Obamacare being the catalyst for revolt more than a little short-sighted. It was nicely articulated by RCP’s Sean Trende on Wednesday:

[A]nalysts need to understand that the Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years. From the point of view of conservatives I’ve spoken with, the early- to mid-2000s look like this: Voters gave Republicans control of Congress and the presidency for the longest stretch since the 1920s.
And what do Republicans have to show for it? Temporary tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP, and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Basically, despite a historic opportunity to shrink government, almost everything that the GOP establishment achieved during that time moved the needle leftward on domestic policy. Probably the only unambiguous win for conservatives were the Roberts and Alito appointments to the Supreme Court; the former is viewed with suspicion today while the latter only came about after the base revolted against Harriet Miers.
The icing on the cake for conservatives is that these moves were justified through an argument that they were necessary to continue to win elections and take issues off the table for Democrats. Instead, Bush’s presidency was followed in 2008 by the most liberal Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by sizable Democratic House and Senate majorities.
You don’t have to sympathize with this view, but if you don’t understand it, you will never understand the Tea Party.

I personally plead innocence to the charge of failing to understand the deep movement-conservative grievances against W., which reinforced the sense of mistrust and betrayal generated by Poppy and feeds negative feelings towards Jebbie. But as Paul Waldman notes at the Prospect, this is a difficult perspective for many liberals to “get:”

You may read that and say, “Are they crazy?” The view those of us on the left have of the Bush years is that conservatives got just about everything they wanted. They got huge tax cuts, scaled back environmental and labor regulations, a massive increase in defense spending, a couple of wars, the appointment of a cadre of true-believer judges nurtured by the Federalist Society, and nearly anything else they asked for….
But that’s a liberal’s perspective. Trende is right that, whether reasonable or not and no matter what they felt at the time, the standard view among the conservative base is now that the Bush presidency was a failure. And so they have embraced a permanent revolution, in which it’s necessary to fight not just against Democrats but against Republicans as well, since every GOP leader is little more than a traitor waiting to be revealed.

It’s worth remembering that even the sainted Ronald Reagan experienced a bit of a conservative backlash during his second term in office. In a very real sense, the last Republican leader fully trusted by movement conservatives was Barry Goldwater, and it’s his legacy today’s conservative insurgents are carrying forward a half-century after the fact.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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