George H.W. Bush would never have been elected to anything in the modern Republican Party.
It’s not because the former president, who died at age 94 on Friday, wasn’t a “real” Republican. Bush believed in lower taxes, a smaller federal government and a robust military — the general principles that, until the last few years, have defined modern conservatism.
It’s because of Bush’s approach to politics. He was not a fire-breather. His first instinct was not to vilify anyone who disagreed with him. He believed in the idea that good people can disagree. He saw compromise as a reasonable goal of government.
In the modern parlance of Republican politics, Bush’s gentility would be read as insufficient commitment to the conservative cause. He would be labeled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) for his dalliances with Democrats on policy.
Elected to Congress to a Houston-area seat in the mid-1960s, Bush would have soon faced a primary challenge from a candidate who decried his support for birth control. And he would have likely lost. And that would have been it. A two- or four-year career ended by insufficient adherence to party orthodoxy.
That, of course, isn’t how Bush’s political career went. After losing a Senate campaign in 1970, he served as ambassador to the United Nations, head of the CIA and, in 1980, ran for president. He lost that race to Ronald Reagan but acquitted himself well enough to be picked as the vice presidential nominee. After eight years as Reagan’s number two, Bush won the presidency outright in 1988. Although he lost it four years later to Bill Clinton, Bush spent the next two-and-a-half decades leading the first family of Republican politics — the head of a household that produced a two-term president in George W. Bush and another presidential candidate in Jeb Bush.
It’s Jeb Bush’s run for president in 2016 that brings the remarkable changes within the GOP into very clear focus. That race began with Bush as its favorite. He had the lineage — a father and a brother who had been president — that Republicans had long valued, not to mention a long record of conservative governance in Florida.
And he never had a chance. Because, unbeknownst to the Bushes of the Republican Party, the GOP had fundamentally changed in the eight years that Barack Obama served as president. The Republican base no longer wanted someone who viewed politics as a civic duty and a higher calling; they wanted someone who viewed it as a professional wrestling pay per view.
Donald Trump ran as much against the Republican Party of George H.W. Bush (and his sons) as he did against the past eight years of Obama during the 2016 GOP primaries. From the start of that campaign, Trump went after Jeb Bush in deeply personal terms, blasting him as “low energy” and not-so-subtly suggesting that the Bush brand of Republican politics was weak.
“Jeb is having some kind of a breakdown,” Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on the eve of the 2016 New Hampshire primary. “He’s an embarrassment to his family. He has to bring his mother out and walk his mother around at 90 years old. I think it’s a very sad situation that’s taking place.” (In response, Jeb said he was “sick and tired of [Trump] going after my family.”)
Following his loss in the South Carolina primary in February 2016, Jeb Bush ended his campaign — and, in so doing, tried to appeal to the party’s better angels that had defined his the political legacy of his father — and his family.
“I firmly believe the American people must entrust this office who understands that whoever holds it is a servant, not the master, someone who will commit to that service with honor and decency,” Bush said in leaving the race. “Despite what you might’ve heard, ideas matter, policy matters. And I truly hope that these ideas that we’ve laid out will serve as a blueprint for a generation of conservative leaders.”
That hope was in vain. Trump continued to insult and bully his way to the Republican nomination, mowing down all contenders in his path. And then, against all odds, he became president — a living, breathing testimony to how much not just the Republican Party but the country had changed since the days when George H.W. Bush held that same office.
One example stands out. After losing the White House to Bill Clinton in a rough and tumble 1992 campaign, George H.W. Bush left a note for his successor to read on his first day in the White House. It read, in part:
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
“Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
The letter George H.W. Bush left for Clinton is a lesson in elegance
Donald Trump, by contrast, spent his first day as president sending out his press secretary to make the case that, despite visual evidence to the contrary, of course his inauguration crowd had been larger than Obama’s.
And Trump’s presidency has been, at nearly every turn, a rejection of the way in which George H.W. Bush envisioned how elected officials should think, speak and act. (It’s not a surprise that George H.W. Bush reportedly called Trump a “blowhard” motivated solely by “ego” — and didn’t vote for him in the 2016 general election.)
Trump’s rejection of the Bush way has manifested itself in ways big and small.
Whereas H.W. Bush believed in the idea of America as a beacon of moral leadership in the world, Trump often seems to act solely from the perspective of financial interests. (Trump’s decision to simply throw his hands up and conclude no one could really know if Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a central role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is simply the latest example of Trump’s amoral approach to world affairs.)
Whereas Bush famously spoke of the “thousand points of light” that represented the tremendous spirit of volunteerism and community at work in the United States, Trump, as recently as this summer, has mocked that slogan — and acknowledged he never even understood it.
“Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one,” Bush told a crowd in Montana at a campaign event. “What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican, wasn’t it? I know one thing, ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand. Putting America first we understand.”
Which, really, says it all. So far removed is Donald Trump’s conception of not just politics and public service but the broader idea of who we are and what we should be as a country from the vision embodied in George H.W. Bush that our current President can’t even grasp what his predecessor is talking about.
But just because Trump doesn’t get it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. To that end, we would all do well to remember these words from a speech George H.W. Bush gave almost 30 years ago:
“Government should be an opportunity for public service, not private gain. And I want to make sure that public service is valued and respected because I want to encourage America’s youth to pursue careers in government. There is nothing more fulfilling than to serve your country and your fellow citizens and do it well. And that’s what our system of self-government depends on.”