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Commentary: George H.W. Bush was too moderate for the GOP base

Honoring former President Bush
Honoring former President Bush 00:53

Amid the well-deserved celebration of an American life well-lived, I have an uncomfortable confession to make, as a lifelong conservative.

I wasn't a big fan of President George H. W. Bush.

Of the man—yes.  As a husband, a father, a citizen dedicated to service, the 41st president is a person every American should admire and emulate.

But as the 41st President of the United States? No. And that was a sentiment shared by many of my fellow conservatives.  

During my talk radio days, I would often refer to myself as a "Jesse Jackson Republican," followed by an audio clip of Rev. Jackson's speech at the DNC in 2000 in which he led the crowd in a chant of "Stay out the Bushes! Stay out the Bushes!"

The conservative talk radio audience got it. It's not that movement conservatives hated Bush '41 the way they hated other problematic Republicans, like the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona or more recently, Sen. Jeff Flake. But conservatives understood that, in the fight for an ideological GOP, as opposed to a pragmatic one, the Bushes were on the other team. On one side -- the tax-cutting, small-government, socially-conservative Reagan Right. On the other -- the elitist, East-Coast accommodationist moderates. Or as conservatives know them: "Bushies." Or "squishes." Or, as H.W. himself was (somewhat unfairly) labelled, "wimp."

The battle goes back at least as far as Bush v. Reagan in the 1980 GOP presidential primary.

Then, Bush was the candidate of the elite, establishment East Coast GOP.  Reagan was the candidate of the conservative, working-class Republicans in the South and West. It's often forgotten, but Bush actually beat Reagan in seven contests in 1980, mostly in the Northeast. In fact, Reagan came in third in the Massachusetts primary that year—a point of pride among Reagan Republicans ever since.

The battle between conservatives and moderates continued through the Reagan presidency. Many on the Right saw Reagan's endorsement of Bush in 1988 as an act of loyalty, rather than a seal of ideological approval. They believed the he still was the Establishment moderate he'd always been. 

And when he was sworn in as president, he promptly proved them right.

The iconic moment was when Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge, of course, but that was far from the only trouble between Bush '41 and the GOP base. Many conservatives were put off by his call for a "kinder, gentler nation," the implication being that America during the Reagan years was somehow unkind or mean-spirited.

Conservatives were used to hearing that argument from Democrats, an argument they countered by pointing out the surge in household income during the Reagan boom for low-income and minority families. But to hear it from their own Republican president?

The Bush '41 administration also undid a great deal of the deregulation of the free-market Reagan years, adding so many new rules that President Bush himself felt the need to issue a 90-day moratorium on new regulations in 1992.  

And then there was Bush's call for a "new world order" after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sure, it might have been the right geopolitical move, but it was a notion that never sat well with the "America First" wing of the GOP.

Add it all together, and President Bush all but invited a primary challenge—which he got from an unlikely source. Pat Buchanan, a newspaper columnist and TV talking head, threw is hat in the ring, representing (he claimed) the real Reagan legacy.  Running on the tax issue and concerns about job losses from unfair foreign trade (sound familiar?), Buchanan got nearly 40 percent of the vote in the 1992 New Hampshire primary

This was the seminal moment for the post-Reagan Republican Party: The party leadership and donor class could acknowledge the divide between their college-educated, affluent suburban voters and their rural, culturally-conservative ones. They could have crafted a political platform and approach that addressed some of those issues in a way that said in actions what George H. W. Bush said so inartfully during the 1992 campaign, "Message: I care."

But did he? Did he and the rest of the GOP Establishment care about the issues that their party's base did? Issues like the negative impacts of trade and globalization. Or mass illegal immigration. Or the cultural war that Americans with traditional values felt was being waged against them.   

These issues didn't resonate with the Bushes—or the McCains or the Romneys. Many in the base believed that these elite Republicans agreed with the New York Times that people in polite society didn't discuss such things -- other than from a progressive point of view. President Bush was never going to be a warrior for the Right in the cultural battles of American politics. 

And maybe that's a big reason why he's being so highly praised in his passing.

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