More Thoughts on George Bush

December 5, 2018 8:45 p.m.

Another take on Bush’s legacy from TPM Reader JB

I’ve been thinking a lot about the elder President Bush as he is remembered today, largely, for representing all the things his son did not as President, and which the current President does even less.

To Bush’s family and many friends, of course, he was much more than that. I don’t begrudge them any of their fond memories, or Bush the sometimes extravagant praise being thrown his way this week. He had real achievements to his credit, some of which are under-recognized today. Even this week, for example, we’re not hearing much about Bush’s role in the thankless task of cleaning up one of the least creditable products of Reagan’s tenure: a savings and loan crisis produced by federal determination to let a financial services industry regulate itself. Whatever he told his son about this episode must have fallen on very deaf ears indeed.

That this and most of Bush’s other achievements were shared with others surely affected public perception of his Presidency at the time, but this was partly his own doing. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act could not have passed had Bush’s administration opposed them, for instance, but Congressional Democrats ran campaigns on these achievements — they had, after all, written much of both bills — and Bush really did not. Why not?

The answer, I think, was Bush’s greatest failing as a public figure, his lapses of moral courage and imagination in the face of political temptation. I will not say political necessity, because I’ve never thought it was that. Bush chose to address the rising tides within the Republican Party — of racial antagonism borne of the Party’s long effort to establish its position in the South, of hostility to government and especially to taxation, of intense devotion to the mechanics of election campaigns and the fundraising that sustained it — not by fighting, but by appeasing them. He did this repeatedly throughout his career, in the latter part of his administration, and in both the 1988 and 1992 Presidential campaigns.

In the end, appeasement never works. Bush himself might have told us this after Saddam invaded Kuwait. The insight left him when he was faced with a challenge from someone like Pat Buchanan, with the possible exception of Pat Robertson the least serious person to run for President in the pre-Trump era. It left him on numerous other occasions. The campaign strategy Bush left behind, based on an identity as the enemy of Democrats and liberals, may have been his most important political legacy.

Did the Republicans have another choice? Of course they did, in 1988: Dole, a more self-assured politician than Bush and one less forgiving to people who crossed him. Dole in his prime and in the White House would have put up more of a fight against the malignant forces of moral rot within the Party than Bush did. He would have been harder to depict as out of touch with Americans suffering during the early ’90s recession as well. But history took its course; it gave us Bush, and because of that gave us his son as well. And here we are.

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