It was a statement designed to jump-start budget talks that had been stalled for months. It did that and more, providing the catalyst that changed the Republican Party into an aggressive and hard-edge brand of conservatism that would hold sway for two decades.
The statement was a renunciation of one of the most famous campaign promises in modern American politics: Bush’s declaration of “no new taxes,” which he made as he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988. The pledge was a bow to conservatives, who always regarded him with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When he reneged on the promise, they exacted revenge.
Bush, who died Friday at age 94, will be remembered for many things. His long and exemplary service to country, the steadiness that marked his governance, and the humility and decency he brought to his political relationships are central elements of his legacy.
He was not above rough politics. His 1988 campaign will be remembered as one in which he pushed the envelope with tactics and issues — the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furloughs — that put his opponent, Michael Dukakis, on the defensive and left Democrats crying foul. In office, he was still in the shadow of former president Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 had selected him as vice president. Rhetorically, he was no Gipper.
As president, Bush proved that experience matters, that knowledge of the world is an asset, that careful and methodical can be more effective than big and bold, that responsibility to country takes precedence over loyalty to party, even if sometimes it comes at great cost, that compromise is not a dirty word.
His presidency came during a time of upheaval in the world. If Reagan’s presidency hastened the end of the Cold War, it was left to Bush to manage the decline and fall of the Soviet empire and to do so safely and without bloodshed. He accomplished that with skill and strategy, aided by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime friend, and trusted national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
When Saddam Hussein invaded tiny Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Bush famously declared, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”
Bush was resolute in the face of the Iraqi threat, just as he had been in pursuing the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall against the advice of some allies. Again, with Baker and Scowcroft at his side, he quickly began to deploy a massive U.S. force in the Persian Gulf while assembling an international coalition to build support at the United Nations for ejecting the Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to help underwrite the cost of the military conflict that came early the next year.
After the war ended, with U.S. forces ordered to stop short of Baghdad, Bush’s approval rating soared close to 90 percent, scaring away veteran Democrats who were thinking of challenging him. Twenty-one months later, he was driven from office by the voters. A transition inside the Republican Party that was already underway accelerated.
Two years after that, the House was in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years, and the dominant figure in the party was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was the antithesis of the defeated president in so many ways. The party began to shift from a philosophy of smaller government to one of anti-government, particularly anti-Washington.
The statement that appeared on the bulletin board in the White House pressroom on that morning in June 1990 showed Bush to be a president who was prepared both to compromise with the Democrats, even if it meant breaking a campaign promise, for what he believed were the best interests of the country and to take personal responsibility for his actions.
In the statement, Bush said, “It is clear to me” that a series of elements had to be included in any budget agreement, among them “tax revenue increases.” The words “to me” were added to the draft at the insistence of Democrats, who did not want Bush to be able to slide away from the compromise. That he agreed was evidence of his belief that this was the only route to a deal, which proved to be the case.
But the agreement also empowered Gingrich, a onetime backbencher, in his quest to remake the party. On the day that Bush and the other leaders assembled at the White House to announce that they had an agreement, Gingrich balked. “I think you may destroy your presidency,” he told Bush. He then left the president and the other leaders at the White House and returned to the Capitol to begin mustering the forces of opposition. It was the beginning of a new Republican Party.
The conflicting interests of Bush and the Gingrich forces continued for the duration of Bush’s presidency. Gingrich’s wing saw conflict with the Democrats as essential to creating sharp differences between the parties; Bush saw cooperation with congressional Democrats in the name of effective governing as essential for the country and, he hoped, for winning reelection as president. On that, he proved mistaken.
A recession that he seemed unable to manage, a skilled opponent in then-Gov. Bill Clinton and the entry of independent candidate Ross Perot combined to end the Bush presidency after a single term. As other Republicans lamented the fall of a president whom they much admired, those in the forefront of creating the new Republican Party were relieved that Bush had been defeated.
Tom DeLay, who would become House majority whip, later told me of his feelings on the night Bush lost in 1992. “Oh, man, yeah, it was fabulous,” DeLay said in a 1995 interview. DeLay admitted then that he had feared that, if Bush were reelected, it would mean “another four years of misery” for House GOP conservatives. He acknowledged mixed feelings about seeing the White House fall into Democratic hands but added, “If we had another four years of this [Bush], we’d never take over the Congress.”
Bush’s eldest son, George W. Bush, sought to restore something of his father’s sensibility to the GOP when he ran for president in 2000 and won the White House as a “compassionate conservative.” But he could neither remake nor retrofit the party. Though he was more conservative than his father, he nonetheless drew the ire of those on the right on issues such as immigration and spending.
The end of George W. Bush’s presidency further accelerated the changes within the Republican coalition, including the rise of a tea party movement that brought an even more unyielding form of anti-government conservatism. Today President Trump is redefining the party in his own image, moving it ever further from the GOP over which George H.W. Bush presided. Bush’s role as an instrument in these changes will be remembered as a central part of the political fallout from his presidency.