It is hard to imagine two men more disparate in character than the 41st and 45th presidents of the United States. George H.W. Bush and Donald J. Trump had almost nothing in common beyond their privileged upbringing and membership in the Republican Party.
So how, in the space of a quarter-century, did we go from President Bush to President Trump? Part of the answer may be found in the Bush years, where, with the advantage of hindsight, one can already see the gathering storm that Trump would unleash on the country.
Bush was the most successful one-term president in the nation’s history. He presided over victory in the Persian Gulf War, the peaceful end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany — all achievements that today might appear to have been inevitable but could easily have had a far less happy outcome. Yet he never got any love from the right. Conservatives did not see Bush as one of them, and by end of his term they had turned against him.
The marriage of convenience between Bush and the right broke apart in 1990. The president was determined to reduce the growing deficits that he had inherited from Ronald Reagan — and that had grown larger still because of the need to bail out failing savings and loan associations. With the nation headed to war in Kuwait, he wanted to put America’s finances in order. The problem was that in 1988 he had foolishly promised, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Bush knew he would pay a price for breaking his pledge, but he was determined to do so for the good of the country.
The No. 2 Republican in the House, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, initially appeared supportive of a spending deal that would have limited tax increases to levies on gasoline, alcohol and other products, avoiding income tax hikes. But when it came time to announce the agreement in the Rose Garden, Gingrich stalked out. Opposition from conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats doomed the deal, forcing a temporary government shutdown. Bush went back to the table, agreeing to a small increase in the top income tax rate, from 28 percent to 31 percent. (It had been 50 percent as recently as 1986.) House Republicans still rejected the deal, but this time there were enough Democratic votes to pass the compromise.
From a fiscal conservative’s perspective, the 1990 deal was a raging success. As Bruce Bartlett notes, “The final deal cut spending by $324 billion over five years and raised revenues by $159 billion.” It also put into place stringent rules mandating that any future tax cuts or spending increases would have to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. Within eight years, a $376 billion deficit had become a $113 billion surplus. Yet conservatives never forgave Bush for his apostasy. Gingrich’s opposition to the budget deal — and his general disdain for bipartisan compromise — helped him in 1994 to become the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years.
Bush’s tax hike was also part of the rationale for Patrick J. Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge, which proved more damaging than anyone had expected. The syndicated columnist won enough votes in New Hampshire (37.5 percent) to embarrass the incumbent and earn a prime-time slot at the Republican convention, where he gave his fiery “culture war” speech that repulsed moderates and independents. As Jeff Greenfield has noted, many of the themes Buchanan hit in 1992 were similar to Trump’s in 2016: He denounced threats to U.S. sovereignty, railed against globalization and multiculturalism, and called for “a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.” The Post’s George F. Will once remarked, after Reagan’s ascendancy, that Barry Goldwater won in 1964; “it just took 16 years to count the votes.” Likewise, Buchanan won in 1992; it just took 24 years to count the votes.
Bush saw what was happening — and it horrified him. In “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” author Jon Meacham quotes from Bush’s diary in 1988 after meeting a supporter of televangelist Pat Robertson who refused to shake his hand: “They’re scary. They’re there for spooky, extraordinary right-winged reasons. They don’t care about Party. They don’t care about anything. . . . They could be Nazis, they could be Communists, they could be whatever. . . . They will destroy this party if they’re permitted to take over.” Well, now they have taken over, and it is impossible to imagine the Republican Party again nominating a man who put loyalty to country above loyalty to right-wing dogma.
As with the death of John McCain, we again mourn the passing of a patriot who served a cause larger than himself — and lament that there are so few like him left.