Sigh. Here we go again.
In a new book by author Mark Updegrove, “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush,”former President George H.W. Bush says this of President Donald Trump:
“I don't know much about him but I know he's a blowhard,” he said. “And I'm not too excited about him being a leader.”
And former President George W. Bush says that Trump “doesn't know what it means to be president.”
This is all too predictable. The fact of the matter is that neither Bush has ever been a fan of the conservative wing of the GOP. Recall this, as recorded in Angelo Codevilla’s classic “The Ruling Class:”
Former Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev has said that in 1987, then-Vice President George H.W.Bush distanced himself from his own administration by telling Gorbachev, “Reagan is a conservative, an extreme conservative. All the dummies and blockheads are with him.”
In other words, way back there in 1987 — 30 years ago — Ronald Reagan’s own vice president was telling the dictator of the Soviet Union that Reagan was the extreme conservative dummy and blockhead-in-chief. Trump got off lucky. He’s merely a “blowhard” in the eyes of Bush Sr.
Why in the world do the Bushes do this kind of thing? Because this is in fact the way Establishment Republicans think of conservatives or those who, like Trump, are decidedly outsiders.
This would be nothing more than a matter of style if the political implications of this kind of thinking were not so harmful to the GOP. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, on learning of the remarks of the Bushes, quickly banged out a series of six tweets about Bush 43 that captures the GOP’s Bush problem exactly:
In book interview, as in NYC speech, GWBush doesn't seem willing to confront damage he did to Republican Party. 1/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
Starting major war (4526 US KIA, 32K wounded) by mistake, devastating economic collapse, job approval 26% by end of second term… 2/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
GWBush job performance made it impossible for Republican to succeed him, paved way for across-board Dem takeover. 3/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
GWBush failures led to Dems winning filibuster-proof Senate majority for first time since Carter. One result: Obamacare. 4/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
GWBush failures so far-reaching that GOP candidate won 2016 GOP primaries by trashing last GOP president. 5/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
Without GWBush (and w/o Obama), there's no Trump. So maybe Bush is 'last Republican president.' And maybe there's a reason for that. 6/6— Byron York (@ByronYork) November 5, 2017
Without doubt, the Bushes are two of the nicest people in politics. But it is, alas, that Establishment streak that runs wide and deep in both that has done so much damage to the GOP. And the ultimate irony is that it is very safe to say that it is precisely the kind of things Byron is talking about that made a Trump candidacy and presidency possible in the first place.
The really incredible part here is that none of this is new. To remind us of just how old the Bush thinking is, we can go all the way back to the Nixon administration and Nixon’s drive to push what he called the Family Assistance Plan or FAP. This was in fact a program that redistributed wealth and gave a guaranteed annual income to families with children. It never passed — too many liberals thought the program too miserly.
But there was one Republican governor who refused to get on board and support Nixon. That was California’s Governor Reagan. Reagan was so appalled at what he saw as laying the groundwork for an out-of-control entitlement that he became a vociferous critic of the FAP, writing letters of opposition to all his fellow governors and every member of the House and Senate.
Most of the answers received by Reagan were polite acknowledgements. But there was one congressman who replied in detail with a staunch defense of the FAP. That would be Texas Congressman George H.W. Bush.
Bush argued to Reagan that there was a work requirement in the bill, that Reagan’s numbers were off, and that in fact the FAP could serve the conservative cause. As Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward would note, Reagan would have none of this, telling Bush that if anything, Reagan’s numbers were probably too low.
It was a snapshot moment of the Bush thinking and its real Establishment bent. Later it would show up in Bush 41’s decision to break his no-new-taxes pledge and Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism.” And the political consequences for the GOP of this thinking were, as Byron York so succinctly summarizes, a disaster.
In today’s world, it was Donald Trump who made a point of taking on the Bush legacy in the primaries. It wasn’t just “Low Energy Jeb” Trump was attacking, it was the entire Bush legacy. And just as Bush World did not react well to the “extreme conservative” Reagan and his staff full of “dummies and blockheads,” they were incensed that criticism of the Bush worldview was rewarded with both the GOP nomination and, heaven forbid, the presidency.
Bush 41 was so angry that he voted for Hillary Clinton, while Bush 43 chose to simply leave his presidential vote uncast. So much for party loyalty.
In reality, what the Bushes represent is not just the Bushes but the Republican Establishment. They are interchangeable as individuals with other Republicans over the years, with names like Romney, McCain, Ford, Dewey, etc. They are supporters of what Barry Goldwater referred to as the “dime store New Deal.” And they never change.
The question is: Has the GOP learned its lesson about running Establishment Republicans who either get shellacked or, if elected, govern like Democrats?
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Jeffrey Lord is a former White House political director under Reagan. He writes from Pennsylvania and is the author of “What America Needs: The Case for Trump.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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