George H.W. Bush, who died this weekend, was complicated and flawed, like most politicians. The normal pattern for any departed leader is to embrace and magnify their great qualities while learning from and discarding their errors. We admire Franklin Roosevelt primarily for the New Deal and Winston Churchill for World War II, respectively, not Japanese-American internment and imperialism.
Bush is a president whose historical memory is highly significant — probably more significant than his presidency itself. The unusual thing is that Bush’s legacy has operated in a reverse of the normal historic pattern. His influence has made itself felt by discarding all his good works and embracing the bad.
The standard historical defense of Bush goes something like this: Bush won the presidency by running a disgraceful campaign of ethnonationalist demagoguery: Willie Horton, flag burning, and requiring the Pledge of Allegiance. But Bush proceeded to govern as a pragmatist, agreeing to a budget deal that included a small tax hike along with spending cuts and prosecuting the Gulf War to a successful resolution without occupying Iraq.
Conservatives have constructed a memory of these events that turns this interpretation on its head. The central figure in Republican mythology is Ronald Reagan, who is misremembered as the perfect orthodox conservative. Bush plays a secondary, but still crucial role, in this morality tale. He is the anti-Reagan, the ideological reprobate who violated the ideological canon by raising taxes and justly suffered as a result.
The factual basis for this myth is terribly confused. In reality, Reagan agreed to numerous tax increases, which were unavoidable as a result of the massive deficits his program of tax cuts and military buildup created. Bush’s budget deal locked in the spending cuts that Reagan had tried and failed to obtain. Bush is the president who actually reduced the size of government. But the memory, rather than the reality, is what has guided the party in the decades since. Since the hated 1990 budget deal, zero Republican elected officials at the national level have agreed to support a tax increase, no matter how small and no matter what is offered in return. The whole ethos of compromise and empirically based governance has been comprehensively discredited.
The Wall Street Journal editorial memorializing the elder Bush is a useful summary of the prevailing Republican interpretation of the 41st president. It memorializes Bush’s 1988 campaign, led by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, as a triumph for which the “left never forgave him.” On the flip side, in addition to dwelling on the hated tax hike, the Journal scolds Bush for failing to invade and occupy Iraq after the Gulf War — “The blot on that victory was that he let Saddam Hussein stay in power” — as if nobody has tried that and we have no idea how it would work.
A quarter-century has passed since Bush left office. His presidency represented the midpoint in a transformation that began with the Goldwater movement and has presently culminated in Donald Trump. Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, was public servant who respected the Constitution, and as a result opposed forcing schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (the voluntary practice of which he was happy to support) as well as prohibitions on burning the flag. Bush used both these honorable civil-libertarian stands to paint Dukakis as unpatriotic and effete, a product of the “Harvard boutique.” Likewise, he manipulated fear of rising crime, which was a legitimate policy issue, with the deliberately inflammatory primal symbolism of a black rapist.
Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, eventually apologized on his deathbed for a campaign based on manipulating white racial paranoia and questioning the patriotism of his opponent. Ailes, the unapologetic co-architect of that campaign, went on to create a propaganda network informed by the values of the 1988 campaign, in which white America was under constant siege by an unpatriotic brew of brown criminals and snooty liberal elites. It was Ailes to whom the future would belong.
Today’s Republican Party reflects the lessons it has taught itself from the Bush era. Today the Republican Party is led by a man shaped in every way by Ailes. He warns of dark-skinned rapists coming for our women, and demanding compulsory displays of obeisance to the flag and disparaging all foes as weak and soft. His policy agenda is uncompromising anti-tax fanaticism, unrestrained by any sense of responsibility or pragmatism. Bush’s legacy shaped his party as a cautionary tale, a leader whose forays into statesmanship constituted an error that would not be repeated.