By FRANK RICH
OF course you didn’t watch the first Republican presidential debate on MSNBC. Even the party’s most loyal base didn’t abandon Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly, interviewing the already overexposed George Tenet, drew far more viewers. Yet the few telling video scraps that entered the 24/7 mediasphere did turn the event into an instant “Saturday Night Live” parody without “SNL” having to lift a finger. The row of 10 middle-aged white candidates, David Letterman said, looked like “guys waiting to tee off at a restricted country club.”
Since then, panicked Republicans have been either blaming the “Let’s Make a Deal” debate format or praying for salvation-by-celebrity in the form of another middle-aged white guy who might enter the race, Fred Thompson. They don’t seem to get that there is not another major brand in the country — not Wal-Mart, not G.E., not even Denny’s nowadays — that would try to sell a mass product with such a demographically homogeneous sales force. And that’s only half the problem. The other half is that the Republicans don’t have a product to sell. Aside from tax cuts and a wall on the Mexican border, the only issue that energized the presidential contenders was Ronald Reagan. The debate’s most animated moments by far came as they clamored to lip-sync his “optimism,” his “morning in America,” his “shining city on the hill” and even, in a bizarre John McCain moment out of a Chucky movie, his grin.
The candidates mentioned Reagan’s name 19 times, the current White House occupant’s once. Much as the Republicans hope that the Gipper can still be a panacea for all their political ills, so they want to believe that if only President Bush would just go away and take his rock-bottom approval rating and equally unpopular war with him, all of their problems would be solved. But it could be argued that the Iraq fiasco, disastrous to American interests as it is, actually masks the magnitude of the destruction this presidency has visited both on the country in general and the G.O.P. in particular.
By my rough, conservative calculation — feel free to add — there have been corruption, incompetence, and contracting or cronyism scandals in these cabinet departments: Defense, Education, Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. I am not counting State, whose deputy secretary, a champion of abstinence-based international AIDS funding, resigned last month in a prostitution scandal, or the General Services Administration, now being investigated for possibly steering federal favors to Republican Congressional candidates in 2006. Or the Office of Management and Budget, whose chief procurement officer was sentenced to prison in the Abramoff fallout. I will, however, toss in a figure that reveals the sheer depth of the overall malfeasance: no fewer than four inspectors general, the official watchdogs charged with investigating improprieties in each department, are themselves under investigation simultaneously — an all-time record.
Wrongdoing of this magnitude does not happen by accident, but it is not necessarily instigated by a Watergate-style criminal conspiracy. When corruption is this pervasive, it can also be a byproduct of a governing philosophy. That’s the case here. That Bush-Rove style of governance, the common denominator of all the administration scandals, is the Frankenstein creature that stalks the G.O.P. as it faces 2008. It has become the Republican brand and will remain so, even after this president goes, until courageous Republicans disown it and eradicate it.
It’s not the philosophy Mr. Bush campaigned on. Remember the candidate who billed himself as a “different kind of Republican” and a “compassionate conservative”? Karl Rove wanted to build a lasting Republican majority by emulating the tactics of the 1896 candidate, William McKinley, whose victory ushered in G.O.P. dominance that would last until the New Deal some 35 years later. The Rove plan was to add to the party’s base, much as McKinley had at the dawn of the industrial era, by attracting new un-Republican-like demographic groups, including Hispanics and African-Americans. Hence, No Child Left Behind, an education program pitched particularly to urban Americans, and a 2000 nominating convention that starred break dancers, gospel singers, Colin Powell and, as an M.C., the only black Republican member of Congress, J. C. Watts.
As always, the salesmanship was brilliant. One smitten liberal columnist imagined in 1999 that Mr. Bush could redefine his party: “If compassion and inclusion are his talismans, education his centerpiece and national unity his promise, we may say a final, welcome goodbye to the wedge issues that have divided Americans by race, ethnicity and religious conviction.” Or not. As Matthew Dowd, the disaffected Bush pollster, concluded this spring, the uniter he had so eagerly helped elect turned out to be “not the person” he thought, but instead a divider who wanted to appeal to the “51 percent of the people” who would ensure his hold on power.
But it isn’t just the divisive Bush-Rove partisanship that led to scandal. The corruption grew out of the White House’s insistence that partisanship — the maintenance of that 51 percent — dictate every governmental action no matter what the effect on the common good. And so the first M.B.A. president ignored every rule of sound management. Loyal ideologues or flunkies were put in crucial positions regardless of their ethics or competence. Government business was outsourced to campaign contributors regardless of their ethics or competence. Even orthodox Republican fiscal prudence was tossed aside so Congressional allies could be bought off with bridges to nowhere.
This was true way before many, let alone Matthew Dowd, were willing to see it. It was true before the Iraq war. In retrospect, the first unimpeachable evidence of the White House’s modus operandi was reported by the journalist Ron Suskind, for Esquire, at the end of 2002. Mr. Suskind interviewed an illustrious Bush appointee, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio, who had run the administration’s compassionate-conservative flagship, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bemoaning an unprecedented “lack of a policy apparatus” in the White House, Mr. DiIulio said: “What you’ve got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
His words have been borne out repeatedly: by the unqualified political hacks and well-connected no-bid contractors who sabotaged the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq; the politicization of science at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency; the outsourcing of veterans’ care to a crony company at Walter Reed; and the purge of independent United States attorneys at Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department. But even more pertinent, perhaps, to the Republican future is how the Mayberry Machiavellis alienated the precise groups that Mr. Bush had promised to add to his party’s base.
By installing a political hack, his 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, at the top of FEMA, the president foreordained the hiring of Brownie and the disastrous response to Katrina. At the Education Department, the signature No Child Left Behind program, Reading First, is turning out to be a cesspool of contracting conflicts of interest. It’s also at that department that Bush loyalists stood passively by while the student-loan industry scandal exploded; at its center is Nelnet, the single largest corporate campaign contributor to the 2006 G.O.P. Congressional campaign committee. Back at Mr. Gonzales’s operation, where revelations of politicization and cover-ups mount daily, it turns out that no black lawyers have been hired in the nearly all-white criminal section of the civil rights division since 2003.
The sole piece of compassionate conservatism that Mr. Bush has tried not to sacrifice to political expedience — nondraconian immigration reform — is also on the ropes, done in by a wave of xenophobia that he has failed to combat. Just how knee-jerk this strain has become could be seen in the MSNBC debate when Chris Matthews asked the candidates if they would consider a constitutional amendment to allow presidential runs by naturalized citizens like their party’s star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (an American since 1983), and its national chairman, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. Seven out of 10 said no.
We’ve certainly come a long way from that 2000 Philadelphia convention, with its dream of forging an inclusive, long-lasting G.O.P. majority. Instead of break dancers and a black Republican congressman (there are none now), we’ve had YouTube classics like Mr. Rove’s impersonation of a rapper at a Washington journalists’ banquet and George Allen’s “macaca” meltdown. Simultaneously, the once-reliable evangelical base is starting to drift as some of its leaders join the battle against global warming and others recognize that they’ve been played for fools on “family values” by the G.O.P. establishment that covered up for Mark Foley.
Meanwhile, most of the pressing matters that the public cares passionately about — Iraq, health care, the environment and energy independence — belong for now to the Democrats. Though that party’s first debate wasn’t exactly an intellectual feast either, actual issues were engaged by presidential hopefuls representing a cross section of American demographics. You don’t see Democratic candidates changing the subject to J.F.K. and F.D.R. They are free to start wrestling with the future while the men inheriting the Bush-Rove brand of Republicanism are reduced to harking back to a morning in America on which the sun set in 1989.