As the country mourns the death of the first President Bush and considers his historical legacy, there is a very strong measure of nostalgia about his political career, his presidency and post-presidency. As there was after the death of Sen. John McCain, the encomiums are impossible to separate from the comparisons – implicit and increasingly explicit – with President Trump, a graceless egotist and predator who honors no code or set of values beyond self-aggrandizement. This harsh present reality forces a great deal of retrospective clean up and sanitization of Bush’s legacy, of which there was a good deal of good and a good deal that was not so good.
Was the contrast ‘decency’ or noblesse oblige? What’s clear is that the contrast is jarring and real and not solely a matter of Trump’s degeneracy. From a public perspective, setting aside the personal loss of an aged man who had a large family which is in mourning, what seems instructive is piecing together what was different about the era of Bush’s presidency and what is quite similar. We should look at the set of decisions which bookend Bush’s presidency and go back to his 1980 primary contest with Ronald Reagan, the contest which, though he was defeated, made his presidency eight years later possible.
Bush was never really part of the Movement Conservatism of the Reagan presidency. That fact hung heavily over his effort to succeed Reagan and later his own presidency. This came up early in his famous debate jab against Reagan, castigating ‘supply side’ tax cuts as ‘voodoo economics’, an attack he later had to recant. Bush’s lack of Movement bona-fides led to consistent over-compensation. His campaign mantra in 1988 was “Read my lips. No new taxes,” which he delivered at the 1988 GOP Convention in New Orleans.
The phrase itself has a number of antecedents but the key one – the one the image makers had in mind – was Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ character in Magnum Force. Reagan had coopted the character similarly with his “Go ahead. Make my day” line. Bush needed to embody this tough guy ethos (one based on force and aggression) while committing himself to a zero compromise stance on the key issue of tax policy.
The internal campaign debates about this are quite revealing. The man who would become Bush’s budget director, Dick Darman, hated the pledge because it would make actual governing impossible, ruling out a whole set of policy options even as the federal budget deficit was soaring. He also would likely face a Congress entirely in Democratic hands – something Reagan only faced in the last two years of his presidency. Darman was against it and Bush was too.
We can pick up the tug of war from this 1992 article by Bob Woodward, one pitting Darman and a vacillating Bush against speechwriter Peggy Noonan and image hustler and Bush advisor Roger Ailes, who would soon go on to found Fox News …
In early August 1988, Richard G. Darman got his first serious look at a draft of Vice President Bush’s upcoming speech for the Republican National Convention. It contained the now-famous campaign promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
For Darman, who aspired to be budget director in a Bush administration, such a pledge would be preposterous. It was Darman’s view that Bush, if elected, would surely need the option of new or increased taxes because of the growing federal budget deficit.
Darman immediately told speechwriter Peggy Noonan and media consultant Roger Ailes that such a pledge would be “stupid and irresponsible,” according to sources and participants in the decision-making about Bush’s speech. As the designated editor, Darman struck the phrase from Noonan’s draft.
Noonan and Ailes protested. The bold pronouncement was central to refashioning Bush’s image and changing the perception of him as weak and loyal to the point of subservience.
“The Clint Eastwood factor,” said Ailes, explaining that they were taking their “Read My Lips” cue from the actor’s tough-guy “Dirty Harry” movies.
But image-building and colorful speechwriting had to have their limits, in Darman’s opinion. Why lock Bush in with a categorical pledge?
It’s tempting to make retrospective contrasts greater for storytelling effect. But the contrast here is pretty clear and needs little burnishing. We see here not just governing versus politics but politics as ideology and performance. Of course, Noonan and Ailes won this tug of war. Bush won, in part by shoring up the Reagan base with this pledge. He then went on to break the pledge, agreeing to the 1990 budget deal with congressional Democrats, a mix of budget cuts and tax increases.
While much of the credit for decline of the federal deficit in late 1990s goes to the 1993 Clinton tax increase, that was built on the mix of tax increases and budget discipline built into the 1990 deal. It is important to remember that the compromise was mainly budget cuts but it also included a small upward revision of the top income tax bracket (from 28% to 31%).
Let’s walk through the progression.
Bush was not a supply-sider and said that clearly when he was running for the presidential nomination against Ronald Reagan in 1980. But he shifted gears when he became Reagan’s running mate and vice president.
When it came time to run as Reagan’s successor in 1988 he resisted making a flat, total commitment that would make governing impossible, especially in the face of rapidly mounting budget deficits. (Remember, Reagan himself had repeatedly raised taxes during his two terms, after sharply reducing them.) But in the crunch, he made the pledge.
But when he was actually in office, faced with mounting deficits and the need to come to some agreement with congressional Democrats, Bush broke his pledge and agreed to a small but significant tax hike. Combined with a faltering economy, this pledge helped cripple Bush going into his reelection fight in 1992. It not only hurt him on the right. It gave conservative Republicans an ideological explanation for 1990-91 recession. It wasn’t the predictable downturn from the flush spending and tax cut fueled economy of mid-1980s that got Reagan reelected in 1984. It was Bush’ fault for not staying true to Reaganism. (The staggering post-Reagan economy wasn’t about the excesses of Reaganism but too little Reaganism!) Bush’s ‘betrayal’ became a central part of the right-wing mythology that Newt Gingrich used to catapult his way to the Speakership in the 1994 midterm election two years after Bush left office.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. As he prepared for reelection in 1992 and needed to burnish his credentials on the right, Bush recanted his 1990 decision and said he was wrong to ever agree to the deal. In line with this decision, the blue-blooded Episcopalian Bush essentially subcontracted the 1992 GOP convention to the religious right and the embryonic nationalist right that would be central to the GOP, almost synonymous with it, a quarter century later. Pat Buchanan, who had challenged Bush in the primaries, was given a primetime speaking slot where he gave the blood and soil “culture war” speech which spawned Molly Ivins’ famous refrain that “it probably sounded better in the original German.”
Of course, Bush lost decisively. One of the themes of his son’s presidency was that the pledge and the rebellion over breaking the pledge was central to George W. Bush’s politics. He would never make the same mistake. He would never break with the party’s right on their core issues.
George H.W. Bush’s greatest legacy is not some thin thing like ‘civility’. It was rather the thing he tried to run away from in 1992: his management of the end of the Cold War. We now take for granted the largely peaceful end of the Cold War, the peaceful unification of Germany embedded within the EU and NATO, the expansion of NATO (and the EU) to bring most of Europe up to the borders of Russia into a web of economic union and security treaties, dramatic treaty reductions in nuclear weapons’ stockpiles. History’s verdict on NATO expansion (largely undertaken under President Clinton) is very much out. But it is difficult to overstate how many things could have gone catastrophically wrong during these critical years but did not. That outcome certainly isn’t all due to Bush. But as the President of the sole superpower during those critical, he was the one person in a position to get key decisions right or wrong. By and large, he did pretty well.
However, if we look at what was different about Bush’s era and what is the same, the picture is much more muddled. Bush was an institutionalist, someone fundamentally more interested in governance than politics. He was also very much a patrician, something which is central to many of the current tributes. But you can see at the heights of his political career how that fundamental institutionalism and focus on governance was repeatedly set aside at critical moments for political advantage, political necessity. In that way, while he was not fundamentally a part of it, Bush very much, perhaps in spite of himself, laid the groundwork for the performative politics of rightwing extremism and the valorization of hostility to all compromise which was ushered in with Newt Gingrich, became the center of gravity of GOP politics in the Obama era and came to full bloom under President Trump.