Imagine this alternative history.
It’s mid-December, 2000. Al Gore has just conceded the election and asked his supporters not to contest the slates of electors in Congress. An aide walks into his room and tells him that it’s Governor Bush on the line. He picks up the phone and says, “Congratulations, Mr. President-elect.” Bush is flattered by the title. He says, “Listen, Mr. Vice President, I’m worried about the legitimacy not just of my presidency, but of the government in general after this. Is there a possibility of you joining my government?” Gore thanks the President elect, but declines. His advisors, of course, had mentioned the possibility of brokering a solution where Congress picks him for Vice President and Bush for President as a resolution to the crisis, but it’s mostly over now. Gore, however, does offer to be a sounding board for anything the new president needs, totally confidentially. Bush says, “OK, then, first one: I want to have a meeting with President Clinton and I want his advice on a unity agenda for our country. It wouldn’t hurt if you were in on it too.”
Gore is stunned but promises to set it up.
The Vice President and President meet with the President and Vice President elect early in January, after the new Congress is sworn in. “I need to govern from the center. It’s the only way to make my presidency legitimate and heal the republic at this point, and I need your help.” Clinton and Gore talk with Cheney and Bush for a few hours. One of the sticking points is whether the mid-term elections would an appropriate point to change course if the results favor the Republicans. Clinton is hesitant on this issue. Bush finally agrees to govern as a unity president for his entire first term.
Bush is concerned that he ran on a tax cut and feels like he has to deliver. In the end, he agrees to promote the Greenspan plan that includes deficit-based triggers and to a sunset after 4 years. Bush promises to name a Democrat as Attorney General and as Treasury Secretary. He agrees to announce all of this in a joint press conference with President Clinton.
Now even if I haven’t already set the table here for avoiding 9/11 by placing someone other than Ashcroft in as attorney general, someone who would seriously heed Richard Clarke’s warnings about al-qaeda, imagine Bush takes the same approach on 9/11.
“Gentlemen, Bush says, we are going to catch Osama bin Laden immediately and we are not going to rest until we’ve disrupted his terror network. This means we have to set aside our concerns about Saddam for now.”
In this scenario, Bush’s approval ratings never fall below 60%, Bin Laden is captured in late 2001 before entering Pakistan, the economy comes to a much softer landing with less worries about future deficits and no savings glut looking for quick bucks in the real estate market.
Bush is re-elected by a landslide in 2004 and decides that his ticket into the history books is continuing his strategy of moderation and reconciliation between the parties. Enough Democrats and Republicans buy into this to produce some decent legislation, including education reform that doesn’t imagine total proficiency for all students by 2014, and Bush vetoes bankruptcy reform.
In his second term, he delivers further on his massive tax cut proposal, but it is much more progressive than his original version. He shocks everyone by pushing for a carbon market reminding people that it’s similar to the system used by his father to tackle ozone depletion. Bush leaves office with very high approval ratings having accomplished much and led the country through 9/11 and ending the war on terror after 1 year and only having endured one moderate recession. He did not ever get around to reforming health care, even though he admired another market-based solution that a Massachusetts governor had tried.
Why didn’t this happen? It didn’t happen because whatever impulse Bush may have had to write himself into the history books wasn’t stronger than the partisan impulses that surrounded him. Many conservatives felt that this was their chance to reverse serious mistakes and actively enact legislation they otherwise could never dream of, and, of course to settle some foreign grievances as well.
It’s the same reason they couldn’t accept the reasons they lost in 2012. They won’t moderate because they are still successful enough at the state level and, for now, in Congress. And because they are beholden to ideological funders who demand extremism.
This isn’t to say that Democrats aren’t beholden to interest groups, but the Democratic coalition is varied enough to let you form different constellations of them and still succeed. You cannot be a Republican that is willing to raise taxes, however.
A 20-year old demographic shift has taken away their majority and a disastrous nomination may cost them control of Washington. But will they moderate?
I doubt it. A small faction may. We’ll see.