George H.W. Bush Was a Better Kind of Republican
The 41st president of the United States was a moderate in a party that came to despise moderation.
Would you know, if asked, that George Herbert Walker Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses? Our memories of 1980 (at least for those of us who have them) are so indelibly stamped with the idea that Reagan dominated everything that it seems inconceivable today that he’d have lost the first important showdown that year.
But Bush beat Reagan by four points. That was the event that occasioned his much-quoted remark about having the “Big Mo.” It didn’t last long. Reagan was the favorite in the race to begin with, and when both men turned to New Hampshire, Reagan stole said Mo with the famous statement, issued at a forum in Nashua: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” The clip pans toward the end—as the crowd is giving Reagan a huge ovation—to Bush sitting there, mute, dumbstruck, surely quite aware that the moment was pivotal. Reagan crushed him in New Hampshire, and you know the rest.
The moment was pivotal, and emblematic: Bush was the centrist in the race, and if we were to try to pinpoint one single day in history that conservatism overtook centrism in the Republican Party, that day is as good as any (it also embodied conservatism’s general trouble with facts—the “Mr. Green” Reagan was addressing was actually named Breen). Bush embraced that conservatism, to a point, because he had to in order to win. But what liberals would give today for a conservative president like Bush!
He put David Souter on the Supreme Court. He signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. He ordered a temporary ban on certain semiautomatic weapons, costing him the NRA’s support when he sought reelection (and he resigned his membership). He put in place an EPA administrator who actually cared about the environment and wanted to start doing something about climate change 30 years ago.
Most famously, of course, Poppy reneged on his pledge to the right, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” The budget deal of 1990, passed without the support of congressional conservatives, raised the top marginal rate from 28 to 31 percent on dollars earned above $81,000 (about $154,000 today). It taxed expensive cars, boats, airplanes, and furs.
We live with the legacy of this deal today. It was this compromise, consummated at Andrews Air Force Base, that got Grover Norquist to start seriously enforcing that infernal pledge. At no time since has the Republican Party considered a penny in taxes. In fact, no individual Republican member of the House or Senate has voted for a tax increase. Bush broke a campaign pledge, true. But it was a stupid campaign pledge. He did a reasonable thing.
Of course he threw his sops to the right. Clarence Thomas. Dan Quayle. Although was that even a sop to the right? Who knows what that was. And he was a campaign knife-fighter, he and his old buddy Jim Baker. But campaigns, which almost always bring out the worst in people, are probably not the fairest way to judge a man.
He was pretty damn reasonable on foreign policy, too. Yes, Bosnia was a horrible failing. Horrible. Slobodan Milosevic was the worst tyrant in Europe since Hitler, and Bush and Baker said that stopping him was not their business. That will always mark both men.
In the plus column, he and Baker handled the collapse of the Eastern bloc quite well. You might say they led from behind. I’ve read Baker’s memoirs on that. Both men showed pretty admirable prudence and patience, especially in the fall of 1989, when Hungary and the other Eastern bloc nations exploded, and Bush and Baker wisely decided to steer clear of direct engagement.
He had his little war, in Kuwait. But that one was certainly defensible. At least he won it fast. And got actual U.N. support, not the fake kind his son won by browbeating Mexico and Turkey. And here again, he stood up to the right, who complained for years that Bush Sr. failed to “finish the job” and march to Baghdad and oust Saddam. We’re still living with that one, too.
But these things aren’t Bush’s fault. We have a party that’s gone gaga. How I wished from time to time in 2003 and 2004 that the trigger-happy president who thought he was doing the Lord’s bidding in Mesopotamia didn’t happen to be his son, because it’s my guess that the father would have been critical. And more recently, I sometimes wished he had credibility with today’s GOP. He could maybe have reined them in a bit here and there.
And what of Trump? Poppy didn’t say much publicly. He was said to have voted for Hillary. At least that’s what Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said, remember? She met privately with him in September and claims he told her how he was planning on voting, and she immediately—and it must be said impolitely—posted it on her Facebook page. It’d be nice to think he voted for her. Of course it would have d been nicer if he’d said so.
Hard to know, though, what difference it would have made. One-termers don’t have much credibility. That’s the bottom line on Bush. He was a one-termer, and a one-termer, at the end of the day, is in the most basic sense a failure. He must have woken up nearly every morning—and Carter must too—and barely gotten through his shave without thinking, goddammit, I lost. You can’t help but feel a little sympathy for him on that one, even if like me you’re glad he did lose. And more than that, he lost a child, a daughter, to leukemia. She was 3. Incomprehensible.
Of course, to today’s right wing, the one-term-two-term distinction is probably immaterial. They hate what he stood for. And that should be a clue to the rest of us that what he stood for wasn’t so bad. I’d bet the current Republican Party broke his heart. Again, I wish he’d said it publicly, but at least he could say, of that day in Nashua in 1980, that he was present at the creation.