The first ballot I ever cast in my life was for George H.W. Bush. It remains one of the few that I have cast with no reservations or regrets.
Bush was not a perfect president, and he was far from a perfect politician. But he excelled at many facets of leadership that are in short supply in 2018. As my Post colleague Karen Tumulty noted in her obituary of America’s 41st president: “Although Mr. Bush served as president nearly three decades ago, his values and ethics seem centuries removed from today’s acrid political culture. His currency of personal connection was the handwritten letter — not the social media blast.”
Similarly, Bill Clinton wrote a lovely encomium to Bush -- in particular, the letter he left for Clinton in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day 1993. There’s an argument to be made that Bush’s letter should just be the standard letter left for every new entrant to the White House. As Clinton noted: “No words of mine or others can better reveal the heart of who he was than those he wrote himself. He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future. And he believed in his duty to defend and strengthen them, in victory and defeat.”
If George H.W. Bush had just been a decent, patriotic human being, the public reaction would not have been what it has been. But Bush was more than that -- he was America’s last great foreign policy president. The peaceful end of the Cold War, the swift end of Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait -- those are the highlights. There was a lot of smaller stuff that mattered as well, including steps taken on the Korean Peninsula, Israel and foreign economic policy that made the job of his successor a bit easier.
Richard Haass worked for both Bush and his son, George W. Bush. In his essay on Bush 41′s foreign policy acumen, he pushes back hard on the notion that it was simply a matter of good fortune that the Cold War ended as peacefully as it actually did.
None of this meant the Cold War had to end quickly or peacefully. Bush was sensitive to the predicament of Gorbachev and later Boris Yeltsin, and he avoided making a difficult situation humiliating for Russia. He was careful not to gloat or to indulge in the rhetoric of triumphalism. He was widely criticized for this restraint, but he managed not to trigger just the sort of nationalist reaction that we are now seeing in Russia.
He also got what he wanted. No one should confuse Bush’s carefulness with timidity. He overcame the reluctance and, at times, objections of his European counterparts and fostered Germany’s unification—and brought it about within NATO. This was statecraft as its finest.
As Max Boot has already noted, the contrast between Bush and Donald Trump could not be more stark: “Bush held a long series of appointed and elective government positions before becoming president, making him one of the most knowledgeable occupants of the Oval Office. Trump had no government experience and still has next-to-no knowledge of policy.” Indeed, the gap in experience between the two men is so vast that they represent ideal types for Elizabeth Saunders’s model of how inexperienced foreign policy leaders can find themselves at the mercy of wayward policy principals.
It is all too easy to talk about Bush’s passing as the end of a bygone era. Hopefully, however, there is one way that Bush and Trump will be similar: They will both be one-term presidents.
The effect of Bush’s 1992 loss on the current GOP cannot be overestimated. The object lesson for the GOP was that neither preparation nor accomplishment mattered as a metric for political success. The two salient facts for Republicans were: (1) Bush compromised with Democrats to reduce the budget deficit, thereby reversing his pledge not to raise taxes and alienating the GOP base; and (2) Bush lost in 1992. Newt Gingrich supplanted Bush as the GOP standard-bearer. This paved the way for political success and policy disasters.
Donald Trump can do one useful thing for the modern GOP: He can lose in 2020. Trump’s control over his party has already wobbled a bit after the midterms. And as CNN’s Harry Enten noted last week, Trump is laying the groundwork for that kind of ignominious failure:
The difference between Trump’s net economic approval rating and net overall approval rating is astonishingly high when put in a historical context. I looked up every single president’s overall and economic net approval ratings right around each midterm since 1978.
No other president has done this much worse overall than his economic ratings would suggest. On average, their overall net approval rating has actually run 17 points better than their economic net approval rating. Trump is running 27 points worse. The only president to come close to Trump’s negative differential was Bill Clinton in 1998. That was when Clinton was getting impeached....
Trump’s tweets, attacks on the media and improvisational style may be fodder for his base, but they don’t seem to be working on the electorate at-large. A Monmouth University poll earlier this year found that the vast majority of Americans said Trump ran a less conventional administration than normal, and by a 21-point margin, they said that was a bad thing.
If Trump loses in 2020, then maybe the modern GOP would start tacking back toward the style of George H.W. Bush and his aspirations for a kinder, gentler nation.
That might sound overly optimistic for 2018. But optimism was another trait that defined Bush. There are worse qualities to find in a leader.