George W. Bush can't fix the GOP
He is right about the party's problems. But he helped make them.
Before Donald Trump came along, I was certain that George W. Bush would be remembered as the worst president of my lifetime.
Bush's administration was one disaster after another — not all of them of his making, certainly, but usually made worse by his leadership: 9/11. Torture and warrantless wiretapping. Hurricane Katrina. The war in Iraq. The Great Recession. When he left office, just 33 percent of Americans approved of his job performance. The country was in decline, and Republican governance seemed thoroughly discredited.
Memories fade quickly, though.
By 2018, Bush was making pretty paintings and nearly two-thirds of Americans said they had a favorable view of the ex-president. Trump was in office by then, firing off outrageous tweets, treating the Oval Office as a reality show, and staying one step ahead of impeachment trials. Any one of his predecessors was bound to look a little better by comparison. So perhaps it is no surprise that Bush has stepped forward in recent days to offer a gentle critique of the Trumpist turn his party has taken in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
"What's really troubling is how much misinformation there is and the capacity of people to spread all kinds of untruth," he told NBC's Hoda Kotb on Tuesday. "And I don't know what we're going to do about that." Asked how he would describe the GOP of 2021, he added: "I would describe it as isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist."
"I do feel that he recognizes that the party has drifted away from the core principles that he stood for," Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's former chief of staff, told The New York Times. "I think he has maintained a lot of discipline not to opine on every little matter, but I think he now recognizes that this is a bruised nation, and he wants to help heal it."
That is a noble impulse, perhaps, and Bush is mostly right in his diagnosis of what is wrong with the Republican Party. But he is definitely the wrong person to fix those problems.
This isn't just because he has so much in common with Trump, although there is plenty, even if Bush is more genteel in his public presentation. Both men rose to the presidency primarily on the strength of their celebrity — Bush shared his name with a recent president, and never would have been a serious candidate otherwise. Both slipped into office by winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Both had a tendency to alienate America's usual allies. Both left the United States in far worse shape than they found it.
And as a number of observers have pointed out, Bush — who sent American troops into Iraq to destroy its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — had a bit of a troubled relationship with the truth himself.
The point here, though, is that Bush's failures made Trumpism possible.
Is today's GOP isolationist? To the extent that's true, it is largely because Bush's deadly, needless stumbles in Iraq disabused a large number of Americans — including more than a few Republican voters — of the notion that big foreign wars can be won quickly and easily, and made them seem a lot less fun. (That wasn't the worst outcome, honestly.)
Are Republicans protectionist? The Great Recession that ended Bush's presidency marked the culmination of three decades of stagnating incomes and rising economic inequality in America. Those troubles had a number of causes, but they were really easy to blame on trade deals that leaders of both parties — but especially establishment Republicans like Bush — were happy to embrace for years.
Is the party nativist? Well, yeah, there was always that element — and Bush, to his credit, tried to keep it at bay during his presidency. But his other failures made room for anti-immigration, anti-establishment Republicans to step forward into power they had previously been denied.
When Bush left office, America was mired in endless war and economic calamity. That helped lead to anemic Republican showings during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. So when Trump came along with his star power and promises of doing something a little different from the party's establishment — no more wars, taking the working class problems seriously, and oh by the way the country's problems are caused by workers in China and immigrants from Latin America — GOP rank-and-file voters embraced it enthusiastically. They still do, even if Trump's reality hasn't always lived up to his sales job. And Bush is all but a persona non grata in the party he once led.
At this point, it is impossible to guess at what a post-Bush, post-Trump GOP might look like. Theoretically, there ought to be room for a successful and relatively sane conservative party in America, one dedicated to small government, traditional values, and the virtues of capitalism. What is certain, though, is that George W. Bush — mostly unwittingly — helped make the Republican Party the mess it is today. Nobody in that party is listening to him now. You really can't blame them. It might be better for everybody if he quietly went back to painting.