National News

George Bush and the Right

Posted December 4, 2018 9:33 a.m. EST

At lunch last week, a political strategist told me that she believes politicians spend their careers rerunning their first campaigns. No matter the issues, no matter the opponent, they can never quite shake that first playbook.

Her theory popped into my head this weekend when I heard the news of George Bush’s death. The former president launched his career in elected office with a 1964 bid for Senate in his adopted home state of Texas.

During that race, Bush, a patrician New Englander nicknamed “Poppy,” refashioned himself into a kind of Barry Goldwater-lite, coming out against the Civil Rights Act, opposing the Nuclear Test Ban treaty and denouncing the United Nations, where he’d serve as ambassador seven years later.

Bush came to regret that pivot. After he lost the race, he told his minister: “I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again.”

Two years later, Bush ran for Congress as more of a centrist Republican. He won, flipping a Houston-area congressional seat that had been held by Democrats for more than 80 years.

But he would never outrun the tensions of that first Senate race. That struggle — between his moderate, country club roots and a Republican Party shifting right — would come to define Bush’s political life.

In the broadest terms, Bush’s political story mirrors that of the GOP over his lifetime: a long-running civil war between moderates and conservatives that resulted in the all-but-extinction of the Rockefeller Republican and the rise of Donald Trump.

Again and again, throughout his political career, Bush would cut right to stay on track with his party.

He recanted his abortion-rights politics and opinion of supply-side economics as “voodoo” to be picked as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980. Eight years later, he painted his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a mentally unstable, unpatriotic left-wing radical, an attack that culminated in the Willie Horton ad, an infamous spot even Trump’s dirty trickster Roger Stone called “racist.”

Even his famous 1988 convention speech pledge — “read my lips: no new taxes” — was designed to boost enthusiasm for his presidential candidacy among the party’s conservative wing.

But when Bush broke that promise two years later, conservatives never forgave him. The fallout contributed to his re-election loss in 1992. And now, more than a quarter century later, there’s little question that the forces that once pulled Bush to the right have won the battle for the Republican Party.

A number of political scientists have dug deep into years of roll call votes and concluded that Republicans are far more conservative than even a decade ago. Many moderate congressional Republicans, particularly those who opposed Trump, either lost their re-election bids or retired to avoid rough primary battles.

That’s a shift Bush felt personally. After his son Jeb Bush lost the Republican nomination in 2015, the former president did not attend the national party convention.

He told the author Mark K. Updegrove that he voted for Hillary Clinton.

“I don’t know much about him, but I know he’s a blowhard. And I’m not too excited about him being a leader,” Bush said of Trump in May 2016, according to Updegrove.

Trump will attend Bush’s funeral in Washington this week, but will not give a eulogy.

If Trump’s victory in 2016 was when moderate Republicans lost their final battle, then the midterms may be remembered as their apocalyptic era, leaving them cowering in a bunker as once-loyal suburban voters cast ballots for Democrats.

That Texas district Bush turned red all those decades ago? It elected Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a 43-year-old lawyer — and its first Democrat in over 50 years.