There is something I miss about George Herbert Walker Bush and the bipartisan establishment he represented. I don’t want everything about Bush’s politics back, but there is something that liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans can learn from his approach to governing our diverse society. The lesson might just restore a measure of integrity to our bitter and fractured politics.
But what was all that patriotic experience supposed to be for? Bush had begun his career supporting funding for Planned Parenthood, yet he ended up pro-life. He nominated both the liberal David Souter and the conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and he seems to have given neither man a second thought after each was approved by the Senate.
Taxes were Bush’s strangest ideological journey, which ended only with his forced retirement from electoral politics. In 1980, Bush described Ronald Reagan’s tax plan as “voodoo economics.” In 1988, he promised that that you could read his lips, there would be no new taxes. He broke that promise in 1990 and repented of breaking it in 1992.
There is a saying that some people get into politics to do something and some people get into politics to be something. Bush seemed solidly in that second (usually less respected) category.
That could be—probably is—true. But it is not the whole story. Bush had been several somethings even before he got into politics. He had bravely served the country in war and started a successful oil company. He compares favorably with many of our current politicians, who begin seeking office (often in activist/political aide/community organizer positions) right after they graduate college—at the latest.
What I miss about Bush is that, while he had no program, and no principles beyond his bromides about service and patriotism, those bromides contained valuable ideas. Namely, that competence, the public good, and integrity matter, regardless of the party in power or the details of the legislation being debated. That there are rules and expectations of decency, which everybody ought to follow.
Those ideas are lost now. Decency matters only if it can be wielded as a weapon against the enemy. To someone who had only known the politics of the last twenty-five years, the oddest thing about the Watergate episode (and George H. W. Bush’s vanished Republican Party) is that the congressional Republicans held a president of their own party to account. To someone who had only seen how the congressional Democrats treated Bill Clinton and how the Republicans now treat Trump, the question (asked by a Republican senator) “What did the president know and when did he know it?” would have a totally different meaning. In the 1970s, it meant that if the president had told certain lies, he should not be president. Today, it would be posed only so that the president’s congressional apologists could craft a better version of the party line. By the late 1990s, the practical lesson of Watergate was that the congressional party should stick by its president. It was a terrible lesson, which the Democrats learned early and the Republicans are learning as we speak.
Absent Bush’s bromides, our politics has become absurdly high-stakes, even as character has been entirely devalued. There is no room for a politics of character that is not deformed by ideology and partisanship. Trump, a cartoon of vice, won white evangelicals by huge margins. Is that because evangelicals are hypocrites? Or is it because of Harvard professors who argued that, in the wake of a Clinton win, conservatives should be treated as the Nazis were during the American occupation of Germany? Mark Tushnet’s blog post should be appended to all responses to liberal fears of fascism in the Trump era.
This dynamic is morally crippling both parties. In the hours after the revelation of Trump’s comments about grabbing women, multiple Republican officeholders suspended their support of their party’s presidential nominee. As polls showed that Trump maintained his support among Republican voters, most of these politicians sheepishly returned to the Trump fold.
Liberals view these Republican politicians as cowards who could not stand up to their own voters. Trump supporters view these Republican politicians as cowards who denounced Trump because they were trying to get in good with a partisan and hypocritical media. As it happens, both the liberals and the Trump supporters are right.
The dynamic also holds for the Democrats. This week’s news is that the Clinton Global Initiative is closing down because of a sharp decline in foreign donations. This is odd. Hillary Clinton just got a great deal of free time. She is finally free of the government’s onerous and exhausting email regulations. Surely her infinite compassion, boundless energy, and encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs would allow her to begin a new golden age of fundraising for all the worthy endeavors of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Except that the CGI was always a scam to turn foreign money into White House influence. It was a scam so obvious that it fooled only those who wanted to be fooled—a category that overlaps substantially with those who claim to be terribly worried by Trump’s conflicts of interest.
The elevation of ideology and partisanship above every other consideration is poisoning our politics. It led to a presidential race in which each of our major parties nominated a reckless grifter. Each side assumes that its opponents’ appeals to ethics or civility are opportunistic, and each side constantly proves its opponents correct. Each side has assumed the mentality of combatants in a civil war, who are restrained from open violence primarily by their physical cowardice and love of luxury—vices restraining vices.
That’s where I miss a little something about George Herbert Walker Bush. There was a lot wrong with him, and his particular brand of unideological politics was unsustainable. Even his two politician sons were, by contrast, conviction politicians. George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural is a deeply ideological—and flawed—document, and Jeb Bush sacrificed his career in national politics to the cause of expanding immigration. Ironically, George H. W. Bush had enough sense to accommodate his party base on key issues, and to avoid occupying Iraq.
But all sides can learn from Bush to set up standards of behavior and decency that cross ideological and party lines. We can treat each other as fellow citizens, even if we have very different political beliefs. We can try to hold all politicians to the same standards. We can build a cross-party understanding of decency. And we could do worse than to start with some bromides about service and patriotism.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.