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Winston Churchill had led the British to victory in the Second World War, yet in the first post-war election, he was not reelected prime minister. Victimized by his own success, the British people in peacetime were free to focus on other matters and elected the opposition party instead. Similarly, George W. Bush’s Republican Party will be replaced by its opponents after having successfully kept the United States homeland free from a major terrorist attack for more than seven years, which allowed American voters to focus on lesser matters. But the Republicans nonetheless should not have suffered the same fate as Churchill’s Conservatives. With Bush’s low poll ratings, Democrats made the election a referendum on the Bush Administration. They and other critics used forms of the word failure in every sentence in which they mentioned Bush. Fearful Republicans distanced themselves from Bush instead of defending him, while the confident president focused on continuing to perform his duties instead of defending his own record. With the premise that Bush was a failure accepted as a given during the campaign, Republicans often prefaced specific issues of disagreement with Democrats by emphasizing points of disagreement with Bush, which only further undermined voter confidence in the Republican Party. With Bush’s respectable record of successes, the need for change could have been emphasized in certain focused areas, while continuity should have been stressed in other areas. Instead, voters demanded wholesale change from Bush policies, regardless of whether they even agreed with all of the Democrats’ proposals.
Credit for the Bush Administration’s success in the War on Terrorism should have been claimed by the Grand Old Party and emphasized as the most important issue. With congressional Democrats having voted for much of the administration’s anti-terrorism legislation, continuity in specific policies could have been emphasized safely. Republicans should have demanded that Democrats answer whether they intended to change all of the administration’s successful policies. A single answer of no on any single point would have transformed the election from being totally about change to being at least partly about continuity. Furthermore, Republicans should have praised Bush for implementing missile defense and asked American voters whether one of the changes they wanted included making us vulnerable again to missile attack.
There has been almost no defense of the Bush Administration on the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, a critical mistake that has undermined Bush’s credibility and reduced the people’s appreciation for the overall Republican success in the War on Terrorism. This mistake will continue to harm Republican electoral success if not corrected. Democrats and other critics constantly repeat the false charge that Iraq had no WMD – without refutation. The Liberation of Iraq was justified because of Saddam Hussein’s record of aggression and terrorism, of which WMD were but a tool. Even if Hussein’s claims to no longer have WMD had been true, his failure to disclose any evidence of their destruction, as required by United Nations resolutions, would have been sufficient to allow him to bluff his neighbors into intimidation. But the truth is that hundreds of the chemical weapons that Hussein never destroyed have been found in Iraq. The GOP should therefore have forced the Democrats onto the defensive for their misleading statements on this subject. In addition to portraying Bush as dishonest, the Democrats succeeded after Hurricane Katrina in also portraying the Bush Administration as incompetent. The federal response to that natural catastrophe was the fastest and largest in history, even though the federal government has no constitutional responsibility for natural disasters. Republicans should have focused more intensively on the incompetence of Democratic state officials and stated that the federal government can only help do what it can out of moral obligation, as long as there is a state government capable of cooperating with it. Finally, Republicans should have defended the Bush Administration’s record on the economy against constant Democratic accusations that Bush was somehow responsible for the recent economic downturn. The Bush tax cuts sparked several years of economic growth. Republicans should have asked American voters how the same Bush policies could supposedly be responsible for the economic downturn after having produced such a period of prosperity. Again, continuity could have been emphasized, as even Barak Obama has not proposed to overturn all of Bush’s middle class tax cuts. The GOP should have been defending the record of the Republican majority of Congress, as it should have in 2006. Republicans could have stated that they had learned from their mistakes and that certain bad apples should have been removed, but asked the American people to consider their overall record of accomplishment: cutting taxes, reforming welfare, expanding trade, rebuilding defense and passing anti-terrorism legislation. Instead, by humbly focusing on their shortcomings, they implied that congressional Republicans were a total failure, undeserving of retaining the majority. A strong defense of the Republican congressional record would have reinforced the positive message of the Republican presidential campaign. After adequately defending the Republican presidential and congressional record, the GOP could then have put Obama on the defensive for his radical, unpopular proposals. The Bush Administration’s success in the War on Terrorism allowed voters to focus on lesser issues, but Republicans could have won had if they had cast the debate as a question of what specific policies should be changed and how, and which policies should not, instead of as a simplistic referendum on Bush vs. change. As a result, Bush’s Republican Party suffered the same fate as Churchill’s Conservative Party. One of the silver linings for Republicans, however, is that after their electoral defeat, voters returned Churchill and the Tories to power just a few years later.