For many, the rise of Ronald Reagan happened the day before yesterday. But it has, in fact, been a long while: the Battle of Britain and Tet Offensive are as proximate in time as we are to 1980. For a great spell, then, American politics has been shaped, directly and indirectly, by the coalition of voters and interests Reagan brought together: fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy hawks and politically conservative evangelicals. The Republican Party he built held competitive primaries, but the seasons were short and the GOP instinct for orderliness tended to assert itself early on, which meant that George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush won the nomination fairly quickly.
Not so in 2008, and one reason for the chaotic nature of the Republican primary race is that the party of Reagan is now divided in ways it has not been in more than a generation. This view, which informs our lead essay by Evan Thomas, is not the unsurprising opinion of what many people think of as the liberal media. It is also held by Michael Gerson, the former senior adviser to President Bush and speechwriter, who writes in this week's cover: "In early 2008, by nearly every measure, the Republican Party is in trouble. Republicans in the House and Senate have been exiled from leadership and are retiring in large numbers. Fund-raising—the most tangible measure of enthusiasm—is weak. In the first three quarters of 2007, Democratic presidential candidates outraised their Republican counterparts by $77 million. One adviser to a major Republican campaign recently complained to me that a significant number of wealthy donors on their fund-raising list were giving to … Barack Obama."
The heart of the issue this week lies in an excerpt from Jacob Weisberg's new book, "The Bush Tragedy." The editor in chief of Slate (which is, like NEWSWEEK, owned by The Washington Post Company), Jacob wrote the book, he says, because "after Bush faced his last election—in the 2006 midterms—I thought it might be possible to look back on his presidency with the beginnings of some historical perspective. I wanted to try to do for him what Garry Wills did so brilliantly for Ronald Reagan in 'Reagan's America.' That is, I wanted to try to step far enough away from the political fracas to ask who this man really was, what ideas and relationships had driven him, and why he had governed the way he did.
"One thing that surprised me is how complex and tormented his relationship with his father is. George W.'s attitude toward his dad is neither simple reverence nor straight repudiation, but contains elements of both. Much is explained by George W. Bush's private view that his dad was a failed president, and by the way he defined his own persona and politics in opposition to his father's. But even as he rejected his father's approach to foreign policy, George W. remained intent on trying to win his father's respect.
"Readers may also be surprised, as I was, by how big a factor the anthrax attacks of October 2001 were in Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq. Even more than the September 11 attacks, the fear of biological warfare—and the erroneous belief that Saddam Hussein not only possessed germ weapons, but might have used them against the United States—drove Dick Cheney and Bush toward the logic of pre-emptive war."
Hopes run high in campaigns; realities run deep in the last year of an administration. A series of short pieces by Daniel Gross, Jerry Adler, Michael Hirsh and Jennifer Barrett lays out the challenges the next president will face on the economy, the environment, foreign policy and health care. The title of the project, which is addressed to the presidential candidates? "Careful What You Wish For."