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Conservative George W. Bush Is Now Too Liberal for His Party

Governors Jeb and George W. Bush in 2000, when they held the GOP and conservatism in their hands. Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s well-known that there’s no love lost between Donald J. Trump and the Bush family. They (with the exception of Texas pol George P. Bush) were conspicuously missing from the ranks of Republican leaders who happily or dutifully endorsed the mogul in 2016 or in 2020. And in a new interview with the Texas Tribune, the 43rd president makes it abundantly clear he is miles away from the 45th on a wide range of issues. But he also shows he’s far from the prevailing mood in the party he led for eight years.

George W. Bush (who congratulated Joe Biden for his victory the very day the TV networks called the presidential race for him) emphatically rejected the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen,” said the January 6 Capitol riot left him “sick to my stomach,” and dismissed Trumpism with the words: “History and the United States has shown these populist movements begin to fritter over time, and so I’m optimistic about democracy.”

W. went on to say he thought Biden was “off to a good start,” and professed himself “pleased” at the new president’s first couple of months in office. This is decidedly not a common sentiment among Republicans today. Nor is his outspoken support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which he manages to advocate without fulminating about border security. Indeed, Bush just published a new book about the immigrant experience in America, and wants the problems associated with the system to be depoliticized, which is hard to imagine after the last four years.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza read the interview and thought it was remarkable how far the GOP had drifted in the 12 years since Bush left office. But I think Cillizza is understating the significance of the gap between W. and Trump’s party. George W. Bush wasn’t just any old Republican: When nominated and elected in 2000, he was very much the candidate of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, the man who (as Robert Novak influentially put it) may have been the biological heir to George H.W. Bush but was the ideological heir of Ronald Reagan. He was backed in his unexpectedly difficult fight for the presidential nomination by every major figure in the conservative movement and in the Christian right. And until his popularity flagged during his second term, conservatives were pleased with his presidency; there wasn’t a peep of dissent from them when he ran for reelection in 2004.

When movement conservatives did have their occasional doubts about W., they often looked longingly at his younger brother, Jeb, considered the more intellectual and ideological of the two. But for the fact that W. won his 1994 gubernatorial race in Texas while Jeb lost his in Florida, Jeb would have probably been the dynastic candidate for president in 2000, and conservatives would not have needed any persuasion to get behind that idea. He was truly one of them.

Jeb didn’t suddenly turn RINO before or after Trump ran over him like a freight train from hell in 2016. If you read his tweets today, he’s still an enthusiastic fan of school choice (and a sworn enemy of teachers unions), and reflexively supports non-Trumpian Republicans at every turn. But he, too, denounced Trump’s efforts to contest the 2020 election, and after January 6 had this to say:

Now some Trump defenders would say that the Bush brothers represented not so much “conservatism” but the “Establishment Republicanism” that meant too many compromises with liberals and too little commitment to “America First.” Others might concede the simple fact that in hundreds of particulars the Bushes reflected Reagan-style conservatism — but at the expense of the “populist” support Trump brought to the GOP.

What’s troubling, though, is that “conservatism” has suddenly been recast in Trump’s image. His most avid, idolatrous supporters are in the House Freedom Caucus, once the redoubt for House members who thought the House Republican Study Committee had become too squishy ideologically. The 2016 Trump rival who drew more movement conservative support than Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, has become a systematic Trump sycophant, and was one of the noisiest of the 2020 election coup participants. Anywhere in the GOP you look, the hard-right tradition seems now to run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush — and now to Trump.

It’s a disconnect, until you understand that Trump has transformed the conservative movement itself as much as he has transformed the party conservatives have dominated since the 1980s. Yes, there are old-school holdouts like some of the writers at National Review (when they aren’t in one of their anti-anti-Trump moods), and the more committed dissenters at the Bulwark and elsewhere. But even if the 45th president himself fades from sight, there’s a new weird cultural frenzy seizing conservatives. The ancient three-legged stool of free-market economics, national security toughness, and social conservatism is now off balance; today’s conservatives are preoccupied with “wokeness” and “cancel culture,” and a racist zest for law and order and closing the borders. All these themes have been evident in conservative Republican politics for many years, but not in this shrill and dominant form.

That these trends seem alien to George W. and Jeb Bush isn’t a sign of some finicky Establishment disdain for “populism” so much as it may reflect the death of their ideological tradition in the fiery crucible that gave birth to its replacement. If Trumpism begins clearly to outlast Trump, and if the Bush brothers increasingly sound like voices from a far-distant political planet, a decisive shift in what it means to be conservative could be an accomplished fact.

Conservative George W. Bush Is Now Too Liberal for His Party