Earth to GOP Establishment: Do you get it yet?
Jeb Bush has suspended his campaign. And I will say it: Governor Bush is a good and decent man. He fought hard. In this corner I salute him and wish him well.
But if nothing else, the Jeb Bush defeat is a very big moment in the modern history of the GOP. The Fall of the House of Bush (as various headlines would have it) is precisely a reminder of the difference between Reaganites and Bushies. Or, as it were, the conservative base and the GOP Establishment. The other day, as the campaign in South Carolina was winding up, Jeb’s big brother George W. stepped to the campaign microphones, with President Bush 43 reminding audiences of President Bush 41’s saying that “labels are for soup cans.” Contrast with Ronald Reagan’s famous description of Establishment Republicans like the Bushes, with Reagan saying that the moderate GOP Establishment viewed the GOP as a “fraternal order” and a party of “pale pastels” rather than “bold colors.” Understand that key difference, and the reason for the failure of this latest Bush campaign is all too easy to understand.
I have written before about the 1980 selection by Ronald Reagan of George Herbert Walker Bush. Ed Rollins, the former Reagan White House political director who ran the Reagan re-election campaign in 1984 (which improved Reagan’s 1980 record of carrying 44 states by carrying 49 states and coming within 7,000 votes of carrying the 50th — Walter Mondale’s Minnesota), would write years later that when he heard Reagan had picked Bush for the GOP ticket he felt that conservatives had won — and then immediately surrendered the future. That the Bush selection “cut the fuse” on the Reagan Revolution because it set in motion a successor of moderate heritage.
Ed was right. In 1988 Vice President George H.W. Bush ran as Reagan’s heir for what was called in the day “Reagan’s third term.” Bush won big on Reagan’s coattails. Here’s Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward in The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989 on what came next after Bush’s victory as the Reagan “heir”:
But the first order of business for the Bush transition was turning out all of the Reaganites as quickly as possible. It was said of Bush appointees that, unlike Reaganites, they had mortgages rather than ideologies. (Conservative leader) Paul Weyrich said that he had always feared that the election of Bush meant the arrival of “country club Republicans who couldn’t wait for the end of the Reagan administration.” (Secretary of State) George Shultz’s top aide at the State Department, Charles Hill, recalled, “It was suddenly clear that this would be an adversarial transition. The new (Bush) people were not friendly. The signals were: get out of here as fast as you can.” Newt Gingrich cautioned, “We are not Bush’s movement.”
Within a political nanosecond Bush was violating his Reaganesque pledge to “Read my lips: No new taxes.” By December 1990, conservative leader Richard A. Viguerie was writing of the Bush betrayals of conservatives in a New York Times Op-ed titled:
Bush Loses the Right Wing
Viguerie began by saying:
Not since Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford has the Republican Party been as bitterly divided as it is today. George Bush and his minions are heading into a civil war with GOP conservatives that will leave the political fields covered with blood.
President Bush has lost all his credibility with conservatives.
… The Rockefeller-Ford and Goldwater-Reagan wings long struggled for control of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election was supposed to have settled the issue, but only delayed the day of reckoning. The matters of principle dividing the wings are too great to be decided by negotiation and mediation. The shelling of Fort Sumter has begun.
And so it had. By 1992 Bush was under challenge by ex-Reagan aide and columnist Pat Buchanan and eventually the independent candidacy of Ross Perot. The man who won Reagan’s “third term” as Reagan’s heir lost re-election to Bill Clinton with a humiliating 37% of the vote.
Four years later the Establishment game extended, with Bob Dole leading the GOP to defeat. The Establishment produced two serious candidates in 2000, with George W. Bush moving just right enough to defeat John McCain. It took those 537 famous Florida chads plus the Supreme Court to carry Bush into the Oval Office. Four years later, a mere 118,000 votes in Ohio kept Bush 43 in the White House. To say the least, there was hardly any Reagan-style landslide. By 2008 Bush 43’s “compassionate conservative” — aka Establishment moderate Republican approach — had so alienated Americans that the Bush era produced the Obama era. Message not received in 2012, when the Establishment — filled with assurance that Mitt Romney was “electable” — lost yet again.
What went wrong with all those defeats and too-close-for-comfort victories? It wasn’t the Bushes — good and decent people. It was the Bush 41 (and Dole, Bush 43, McCain and Romney) Establishment. Which in turn was the modern version of Thomas E. Dewey and all those GOP losers from the 1930s and 1940s when GOP candidates insisted on being some form of Democrat-lite.
This old, creaking, and repeatedly losing politics has in the modern era become weighted down with another serious liability.
The conservative Outside-the-Beltway base of the GOP has come to this understanding. Big government in its literal Washington form begets, among other things, a GOP lobbyist/donor/consultant class that in fact is in total agreement with Democrats when it comes to big government. Why? Because they make their living off of it.
The game works this way, and I’ll use the Department of Education to illustrate. Jimmy Carter created the Department in the late 1970s. Reagan wanted to abolish it, and failed. Both Bushes went in the other direction, most notably with Bush 43 and the compassionate conservative doctrine that produced No Child Left Behind.
Back in 2011, the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website reported the following:
During the first quarter of the year, 153 organizations lobbied on issues referencing NCLB or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, research by the Center for Responsive Politics shows. Because lobbying reports do not require an itemized accounting of how much money is spent on any particular issue, a precise dollar amount for money spent on lobbying regarding NCLB and ESEA re-authorization is not available. But, during the first quarter, all groups within the education industry spent $22.6 million on lobbying on all of their issues, according to the Center’s research.
Of these 153 groups, by the Center’s count, at least 47 percent — 72 organizations — tout education issues as their primary focus.
Now. I could start naming Republican lobbyist names here but it would be pointless. Not to mention that it would be unfair — because they all do it. This is the game. Big Government equals the D.C. feeding trough for Big Lobbyists — GOP lobbyists most definitely included. When it comes to presidential candidates, these lobbyists and the adjunct consultant class support candidates who are not promising to bring a halt to the gravy train. There is a reason these folks hate Trump and Cruz both. And with Trump now gaining momentum, the panic level inside the GOP Establishment and its “donor class” rises.
Which brings us back to the Bushes — and the demise of the Jeb campaign. Recall this story — one of many in 2015 in a number of outlets — from Politico that was headed:
Bush courts D.C. lobbyists
His allies are being asked to raise $50,000 each for the likely 2016 hopeful.
Jeb Bush’s wooing of Washington has officially begun.
The former Florida governor held two meetings with association executives and lobbyists Tuesday at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors headquarters, outlining his thinking about running for president and taking questions from veteran GOP operatives.
Bush is expected to hold a similar meeting Wednesday with another group of Republican allies. He is slated to return to Washington in February as part of 60 fundraisers across the country his team has planned.
And there it was in black and white. The Bush-GOP Establishment complex at work. They did indeed raise money — over $100 million. And it was next to worthless. Why? All it did — quite predictably if you weren’t caught up in all this Inside the Beltway “wisdom” — was dramatize to voters in vivid form that Jeb Bush, like brother and father before him, had not the slightest intention of changing the way Washington works. From breaking the “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes (Bush 41) to No Child Left Behind (Bush 43) to Common Core (Jeb), the Bushes made an indelible mark in the minds of the GOP’s conservative base that they were the exemplars of GOP Establishment conventional wisdom.
Now, the campaign is over for Jeb and the Bushes. Most importantly, the GOP Establishment politics of what Reagan disdained as the “fraternal order” or “pale pastel” Republicans have taken a well-deserved torpedo amidships. Remember this story? Headlined as follows in the Hill?
Jeb Bush: Republicans have to ‘lose the primary to win the general’
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made the case for a more centrist Republican Party on Monday night, saying a nominee should “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.”
Bush laid out policy positions that could be controversial among the conservative base.
And so he did. And like father and brother — and other moderates before him — Jeb failed.
A new era for the GOP has begun — a new era based on those old principles celebrated by Ronald Reagan. Change is on the way — and not a minute too soon.