As Republicans gather in Florida starting Monday to crown their White House nominee and plan their fall campaign, they are defining their party for the first time freely clear of the Bush era.
The Republican National Convention will be the first since George W. Bush left office, and only the second since 1980 without a Bush on the ticket or in the White House. In again: the Ronald Reagan brand of modern conservatism. Out: the George W. Bush brand of a big-spending, nation-building Republican, not to mention the George H.W. Bush brand of promise-breaking tax increases.
Republicans today are passionately conservative and skeptical of government, much more so after a decade of deficits and soaring debt under Bush and Barack Obama. They’re anti-abortion, against gay marriage and hostile to gun control. They’re wary of U.S. foreign interventions – with the Cold War a fading memory, the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars tallied in the trillions and a terror threat that seems less visceral with Osama bin Laden dead.
Demographically, a Republican is much more likely to be married than a Democrat or an independent; more likely to be a man, be white, be older, make more than $50,000, and be a homeowner, according to McClatchy-Marist polls.
Perhaps nothing drives a 2012 Republican as much as federal spending and debt.
“The spending is just astronomical,” said Daryl Bramlett, a chef in the prepared foods section of a Kroger grocery store in Versailles, Ky., west of Lexington. “I am very compassionate. I am a Christian. I have compassion for people who are really poor or old or disabled. But we’re giving money to other people who could work. It just kills me to hand money to people who don’t need it.”
For a Republican such as Bramlett, the reaction to federal spending is bipartisan, born during the free-spending Bush years and aggravated by $1 trillion-a-year deficits under Obama.
“I resent the fact that they’re spending and spending and spending,” Bramlett said. “They’re still spending money we don’t have. It’s not just the Democrats, it’s the Republicans, too.”
Indeed, many Republicans acknowledge that the debt rose and the government expanded under Bush as he waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq without any offsets to pay the bills, while backing major new programs such as Medicare prescription-drug coverage and the No Child Left Behind federal education law.
“Bush wandered off a little bit. He spent a lot of money and increased our national debt,” said Dominic Acolingo, general manager of a resort hotel in Nevada on Lake Tahoe.
Acolingo still supports the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, but he said the subsequent American war and occupation was ill-conceived and mismanaged.
“The fact that it took eight years and cost so much money was Bush’s fault and (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s fault,” Acolingo said. “How we went into Iraq was just so naive. It cost us billions of dollars.”
The party is being defined from the ground up.
The conservative backlash rose up in the 2010 congressional elections, when grassroots activists calling themselves the “tea party” challenged establishment Republicans in primaries, then helped the party win a landslide seizing control of the House of Representatives. Republican candidate Mitt Romney secured the party nomination by tacking to the right to woo those voters.
One sign of the conservative surge: Far more Republicans see the government as an intrusion in their lives now compared with 1998, 63 percent vs. 39 percent, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Tea party activists who have given the party new energy and sent hard-ribbed conservatives to Congress are especially emphatic that their movement isn’t so much a Republican reinvention as it is a return to Reaganite principles.
“We’re trying to tell the truth,” Joe Dugan, head of the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, told McClatchy. “The Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party has led us down this path to insolvency. That needs to change.”
The broad trend notwithstanding, the Republican Party is not monolithic. There are some fissures beneath the broad Republican brand over excessive government spending, debt and regulation.
A recent McClatchy-Marist poll, for example, found that 38 percent of Republicans said economic concerns should be solved mostly by business, while 46 percent said government. One-third of Republicans said concerns about unemployment must be solved mainly by government, rather than the private sector alone.
And more than one-quarter of Republicans said the nation’s health care problems should be solved mostly by government, only a slightly smaller share than the 29 percent who said business should take the lead.