ANALYSIS: Sorry Media, The Bush Dynasty Was Never All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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Jeb Bush is not the most “electable” GOP presidential contender because the family that he represents is not electable now and truly has never been more electable than ideological conservatives. It’s a historical fact.

Bloomberg writer Mark Halperin this week fawningly suggested that Bush is the electable Republican hopeful in the field. Uh, sure. Everyday Republicans are just chomping at the bit to nominate this donor-friendly prepster who would pick up the ball from his brother on federal school reform and give corporations cheap labor with an immigration package. (Why do liberals always feel the need to “help” Republicans out with political advice about who they should nominate? In that spirit, I’ve got a suggestion for them: Howard Dean. 2016 is that guy’s year, man. He’s ready.)

This all fits into the media’s narrative about how the upstart tea party that won the House in 2010 could never run a viable national campaign around a candidate like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. The media thinks that the “uncharacteristic chaos,” as Halperin called it, playing out in the Republican Party right now is something completely new. Therefore, the tea party, in contrast to the permanence of the Bush-dominated establishment, is something completely new. It’s not.

Did these predominately older tea partiers just show up out of nowhere at town halls and health-care rallies in 2010 after having never paid attention to politics before? Of course not. Many were Reagan voters and conservatives before the Bushes ever came to power. The tea party is not merely reactionary. It’s not a marginal angry outburst. It’s the re-emergence of a very electable kind of politics that only became temporarily dormant during the Bush years. The Bushes, meanwhile, have hardly ever been electable, and only when masquerading as something they’re not.

Let’s take a stroll through history to review this “Powerful Establishment vs. Weak Conservative” paradigm, which exists largely because the last two Republican presidents have been named Bush. Let’s go to 1980.

Ronald Reagan, a non-establishment Republican figure up to that point, pounded East Coaster and former Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush in the primary with more than seven and a half million votes to Bush’s three million. Reagan, the conservative movement ideologue, had no intention of picking Bush as his running mate. If the original Reagan-Gerald Ford ticket had worked out during a last-minute frenzy at the convention, then the Bushes, already shrinking in demographic power, would have faded from major party politics. Bush would have returned to the background where he could serve, as Nixon said of him, as the “kind of person you appoint to things.”

Few talk about the reluctance with which Reagan picked Bush. Theirs was not the close partnership that Bill Clinton implied when he railed against 12 years of “Reagan-Bush” in his 1992 campaign. Bush was always a political and domestic policy outsider in the Reagan White House, relegated primarily to the role of foreign policy adviser and point man on U.S. Middle East policy during the last decade of the Cold War — a war that could not have been won without Reagan’s firm commitment to fiscal conservatism and economic strength at home. A Republican insider during the 1980s told me that the concept of Bush’s presidency, even as late as Reagan’s second term, seemed like “science fiction” to almost everyone.

When Bush decided to try for the presidency in 1988, he inherited Reagan’s endorsement but got crushed by Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucus. Only the brilliant hardball strategy of Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater (and Atwater’s right-hand man, a young George W. Bush) kept Bush alive and eventually carried him to the nomination over Dole. It was a campaign of smoke and mirrors, as chronicled in the Atwater documentary “Boogie Man,” marked by a staged television confrontation with Dan Rather over Iran-Contra and anti-Dole attacks. Even as the nominee, Bush lagged far behind Democrat Michael Dukakis in the polls until Atwater came through again with the Willie Horton ad (and an assist from debate moderator Bernard Shaw, who infamously asked Dukakis if he would support the death penalty if his wife Kitty got raped).

“Bush abandoning the Reagan revolution” read the headline from Rowland Evans and Bob Novak on March 14, 1988.

“This is the ironic conclusion of seven years of work transforming the vice president from moderate to heir of the Reagan Revolution and candidate of old-line Reaganites,” Evans and Novak wrote. “But there was no viable opponent to upbraid the prospective nominee for abandoning the revolution. Even if Dole’s campaign were not disintegrating, the Senate Republican leader could not perform that function.”

Bush was a career bureaucrat with no fan base and a very small political constituency without Reagan. Conservatives, meanwhile, were the powerful “old-line Reaganites” who needed to be won over. Only after Reagan told Bush to “Win One For The Gipper” did the Republican Party change. Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart recalled in his recent memoir “Little Failure” that he volunteered for Bush because of his devotion to Reagan, and then was mistaken for a waiter by two blond young Bush supporters at the Election Night party.

In office, Bush went about un-making the vast political coalition that Reagan had built, much the way Harry Truman splintered Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in a few short years. An insider told me that Reaganites felt almost completely shut out of the new administration. When Bush approved a modest tax hike to shrink the deficit in 1990, the conservative base of his own party led by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich rebelled against him.

By 1992, even after winning the Gulf War, Bush was so low in the polls that Pat Buchanan managed to win three million votes against him in a Republican primary, running hard against the pro-outsourcing, pro-immigration, pro-interventionist policies that he saw taking shape in Bush’s Republican Party. Independent Ross Perot sang a similar tune in the general election, where he split the Republican vote (make no mistake about it) by talking about trade deficits and mounting federal debt. Reduced to appearing in three-man debates as an incumbent, Bush won a humiliating 37 and a half percent of the vote, comparable to William Howard Taft’s showing in the three-way race of 1912.

At that point in history, could anyone have said that the Rockefellerism of George H.W. Bush had more political pull at the ballot box than the ideological conservatism of Ronald Reagan?

The next generation of the dynasty didn’t exactly charge out of the gate as electoral superstars. George W. Bush won a tough campaign against Ann Richards in Texas in 1994 but brother Jeb, the anointed heir, lost that year in Florida. George gained popularity and Jeb ended up winning in Florida in 1998. But their success was dwarfed on a national level by Newt Gingrich’s three consecutive House victories. When it came time for Republicans to challenge Al Gore in 2000, Gingrich was two years out of Beltway politics and the field was thin. George W. Bush put on a cowboy hat, developed a vague policy agenda and a campaign based around Red vs. Blue identity politics, and entered the race as the longshot Republican challenger. Gore’s own mistakes on the trail swung the election (barely, and only in the Electoral College) to Bush.

Did conservatives vote for George W. Bush because he was a Connecticut-born, corporate-friendly establishment type? No, they voted for him because he was the Republican running against Gore, and he played his folksy conservative character well. While his political fortunes rose and then collapsed due to the War on Terror, Bush’s actual policymaking was never all that electable.

What if conservatives had known in 2000 what Bush would end up doing on the domestic front: pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, doubling the size of the federal budget, failing to get his own party to back Social Security reform, upping entitlement spending by creating Medicare Part D to the delight of drug companies, watching the Enrons and the Tycos turn the financial sector into an invite-only Gordon Gekko fan club, and doubling down on the Clinton-era government lending policies that caused the financial collapse. Would conservatives ever have voted for him? Bush’s worst approval rating, 23 percent, represented a lot of conservative disillusionment and had to do with a lot of things other than Iraq.

The spectre of Bush did no good for the next two Republican campaigns, the decidedly establishment McCain effort and the cartoonishly establishment Romney try (with its George H.W. and Barbara Bush endorsement).

The Bush dynasty, or for that matter the Republican establishment that it represents, is not some kind of invincible force in party politics towering over the grassroots tea party. Much to the contrary, it’s an aberration. It’s a group that stood close enough to power for long enough that a few lucky political breaks got it three nonconsecutive terms in the White House — and for each win it had to appropriate a conservatism that it had no intention of practicing.

The Bushes are not electable now, they’ve barely been electable in the past, and they continue to be politically weaker than conservatives, despite impressions that people may have gleaned from media sources. It was conservatism that almost turned the entire electoral map red in the 1980s. It will be conservatism that brings red back to at least half of it.

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