How George H.W. Bush Gave Us Donald Trump

With my department located on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University, I saw and heard Bush numerous times over the years. Some of these occasions were frivolous: Bush on a Segway zooming ahead of his Secret Service detail on the sidewalk. His Secret Service agents, dressed uniformly in dark suits and sunglasses, clustered around a second, stalled Segway and frantically trying to get it started again. Or a Secret Service agent chasing down the Bush family’s dog after it slipped its collar while they were walking it around the pond on the grounds of the Presidential Library.

I also heard Bush speak a number of times at TAMU. Invariably during the Q&A session, someone would ask Bush whether he regretted agreeing to raise taxes as part of the 1990 Budget Reconciliation Act after having so emphatically pledged not to during the 1988 presidential campaign. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) Bush uniformly defended the compromise as politically necessary and nothing exceptional.

According to the normal Washington rules up to that time, he was right. The post-WW II Washington norms held that “good” Republicans compromised with Democrats by agreeing to grow the size of government, albeit only more slowly than the Democrats proposed. This, as opposed to stopping the growth of government entirely or actually shrinking the federal budget—both were radical positions beyond the pale of polite society. Frustration with this game, however, led—significantly, but only partly—to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Of course, Reagan left the White House with the domestic portion of the “Reagan Revolution” only partly completed.

However, Bush never caught on to the fact that a growing number of Republican voters expected Republican politicians actually to change the rules. They had grown tired of Republican politicians who promised change in Washington, and time after time saw them govern when they got there according to the standard post-WW II rules. Whether he understood it or not, many Republican voters took his pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” as a commitment to change the game, or at the very least to work to complete the domestic dimension of the Reagan Revolution.

Furthermore, Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge was his signature line for the 1988 campaign. He never seemed to understand or could not admit publicly that he had tied his credibility—his honor—as a politician to that pledge. The sensible and unexceptional reasons Bush could cite when he agreed to a tax increase as part of the compromise that led to the 1990 Budget Reconciliation Act also destroyed his credibility as a putative game changer.

The problem with the compromise wasn’t really the terms of compromise itself. It was ordinary, incremental policy change. The problem with the compromise was the unwillingness of a good swath of the Republican constituency to trust Bush again—and the way it conformed to a long-held pattern of Republican lawmakers adapting to Washington rather than working for change.

Data are mixed whether the tax compromise itself cost Bush the 1992 election. The economy had taken a hit and had turned around too slowly to help lift Bush in the campaign against “It’s-the-Economy-Stupid” Bill Clinton. But it diminished motivation among Republicans for his reelection. While data show that Ross Perot (an independent presidential candidate that year who drew 18.9 percent of the popular vote) pretty much took votes equally from Bush and Clinton in the 1992 election, I dare say Perot drew zealous Republicans away from Bush disproportionately to zealous Democrats he drew from Clinton. Perot tapped into voter anger against the then-current rules of the game in Washington. Bush ceded this group of voters to Perot by repudiating his no-new-taxes pledge. Ross Perot was the proto-Trump.

In repudiating his no-new-taxes pledge, Bush catalyzed the spread of anger of Republican voters against mainstream Republican candidates. It convinced voters that mainstream Republican politicians will not keep their word, and are not to be trusted to do what they promise while campaigning.

This narrative spread during the intervening decades, energizing the Republican Party’s move to the Right. It produced Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the Tea Party, and ultimately Donald Trump.

Those who hold to this narrative may not constitute a solid majority of Republican voters, but the plurality is large enough that in competing against each other, the ordinary Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 could not get leverage against Trump’s sizable minority.

This is still the part of the story that liberals and the mainstream media do not grasp. Because of the corrupt bargain of post-WW II national Republican politics—which amounted to a promise on the Left’s part: “I’ll call you a gentleman if you don’t take your campaign promises seriously”—a good portion of the Republican electorate concluded that actually to change the game, they would need to select someone who didn’t care whether the media or Democrats called him a gentleman. This is why Trump’s personal nastiness and policy line drawing—behavior that drives the mainstream media crazy—not only does such behavior not hurt Trump with his base, but actually affirms their assessment that he is the man they need. They support Trump because Trump is the anti-Bush, not in spite of it.

To be sure, George H.W. Bush did not single-handedly cause the rise of Trumpism in the Republican Party. But his repudiation of his no-tax pledge added fuel to the fire. The conflagration ultimately consumed the Republican Party that he knew. It was not what Bush wanted, but the electoral opening Trump exploited in 2016 would not have existed but for the inability, or unwillingness, of so many post-WW II Republicans to govern as they campaigned, no-new-taxes and all.

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on December 12, 2018 at 09:28:08 am

Good article; it points to one of the very few things for which GHWB should get credit rather than blame (besides being a nice guy, so everyone in the media says, and they never lie.) He helped elect Donald Trump.

BTW: the Bush tax increase was orchestrated by the god-awful Dick Darman, GHWB's Director of OMB, who said in writing that Eliot Richardson (rather than GHWB?) should have been president. The tax increase raised BOTH the nations' tax burden and its deficit ( deficit-reduction being the very reason used by GHWB to justify the tax increase in the first place) and reversed the booming Reagan economy.

Thus, when GHWB violated his "no new taxes pledge" he actually did 5 things: 1) proved himself a liar rather than the gentleman of principle, the false public image which he fostered throughout his life, 2) created the economic down-turn that elected Clinton, 3) increased the national debt, 4) stopped in its tracks and reversed the conservative tide that Reagan had built, a political reversal from which the nation has yet to recover, and, as Rogers says, 5) helped elect Donald Trump (for which we should all be grateful.)

I wonder if George W. and Jeb Bush appreciate the historical irony of the fact that their Dad derailed the conservative train for 24 years, harmed the economy, raised the national debt, undermined his reputation as a man of integrity, gave the nation the deplorable Clintons (whom the Bushes then befriended: Calling Bill "Our brother by a different mother" and GHWB actually voting for Hillary in 2016) and then, the most delicious irony of all, helped elect Trump whom the Bushes despise.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on December 12, 2018 at 11:18:46 am

I second Pukka's comments, but add that the GOP Congressional delegation in the years since bears more of the blame, in my opinion. Refusing to practice what they preach when they have the power to so practice is GOP SOP; the thinking must be that it will help them retain their majority if they don't actually shrink the federal government (this assumes that their statements on that subject are actually sincere and not just bald lies). Yet they lose their majority anyway, as in just recently. So I see little point in continuing to elect Republicans to office (federal office anyway). We are a de facto one-party state; Trump is just a temporary anomaly.

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Image of QET
on December 12, 2018 at 14:52:55 pm

Except for the last sentence in QET's comment, I agree 100%. I don't think Trump is a temporary anomaly at all. He may be the bull smashing the chinaware, but he has awakened many to the obvious fact that it can be done. The next GOP President (yes, there will be one) will have more class and better credentials, but he/she will come to the office knowing that he/she need not compromise his/her principles to retain power.

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Image of Carl
on December 12, 2018 at 15:45:48 pm

QET's conclusion is sad but true, unless the Trump forces can withstand for 6-10 years longer the awesome forces arrayed against them that are fanatically-determined to destroy the counter-revolutionary force of Trumpism in the infancy of its political potential.

As to QET's point about the lack of Republican testicular fortitude (can we say, lack of "republican virtue?") it is of historical interest that the "get along-go along"/"do nothing to rock the boat of comity" phenomenon that has invariably characterized the debilitating civility of post-Eisenhower Republicanism toward Democrats (except for the brief interregnum of Goldwater's nomination and Reagan's 8 years) was the downfall of both "Read My Lips" Bush and W Bush (who never saw a Republican over-spending bill fit to veto.) GHWB even named the Main Justice Building after Booby Kennedy, inviting the Kennedy Clan as honored guests to the ceremony, only to have Ted Kennedy, the very next day, trash Bush on national television. W Bush proposed major educational reform, with his centerpiece being school vouchers as an essential quid for the pro quo of massive additional federal aid-to-education dollars. The "Lion of the Senate" agreed with the more money offer, rejected the school vouchers demand, and they made a deal. HaHa Republican bargaining skills. For Nixon, Ford and both Bushes reaching across the aisle usually meant losing a few fingers.

Even during the Reagan years when Anne Gorsuch (the Justice's Mom) struggled to reign in a runaway EPA, the Republican minority in Congress was nowhere to be found when the fighting started and the Democrats destroyed her. In that era I recall watching as my corporate witnesses before Congressional committees on environmental matters were excoriated in (rhetorical) questioning by Democrat Congressmen and then totally abandoned by Republican members when it came time for their questions. In one episode, the Ranking Republican actually left the hearing room for a bathroom break so as to avoid having to question my corporate witness who had just been unfairly reamed by the Democrats.

That was then, from 1975-2009, when I retired from the private law practice of fighting the bad environmental laws and policies of Democrats and their loyal Republican allies.

This is now. Nothings changed; it's just worse.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on December 12, 2018 at 16:01:42 pm

This is a finer way of saying what Decius said in his article, "Flight 92 Election": that for too many years, politicians in the Republican Party have set out to be the "Washington Generals" for the conservative cause, a team which sets out to lose

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CJ Wolfe
on December 12, 2018 at 19:49:26 pm

Yep to all of the above.


The title of the essay says it all.

AND WHY can't GOP House pass Trumps wall?

In the article it is alleged that some Congresscritters blame Trump for their recent loss and thus will not vote for his wall. Perhaps, if they had ACTUALLY done what they promised, they may have won.

Perhaps, had they not been part of the Post WWII *Gentlemen's Agreement, nor been content to pose as the Washington Generals (tip to CJ) the GOP would not have seen 3-4 million fewer voters at the polls this past "funny" season. These millions did what many Never Trumpers decided to do - refuse to hold their nose and vote for more electoral perfidy.

In the end, it is but another in a series of excuses (Trump cost me the election) for inaction, ideological confusion and a lack of fortitude on the part of the RINO's.

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Image of gabe
on December 13, 2018 at 12:39:30 pm

EVERY SINGLE COMMENT ABOVE IS TRUE and WELL-PUT! Criminy! I didn't vote for Trump (not a Never Trumper here...just a Never Hillary-er who didn't want to trust a guy who only a year or two prior to running was giving money to "She Who Must NOT Be President"), but I'll admit; Trump has governed the way most actual conservatives (excepting tarriff's) want the GOP to govern. And STILL, the Never Trumpers and petulant patricians in the Washington establishment GOP refuse to exercise the power the People gave them in 2016. Maddening!

IF Trump survives the next two years, I'll happily vote for him in 2020. I won't even have to hold my nose. I've gotten used to the stench, and have realized, The Donald's contribution to it is miniscule compared to the rotting elephant carcasses currently in Congress.

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Hektor Bleriot
on December 14, 2018 at 08:03:23 am

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