Political Hay

Not So Fast, Jeb Bush

The rigidity of moderation: Ex-Florida guv rewrites history of Reagan and Dad

By 6.14.12

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The headline in the New York Times?

Jeb Bush Questions G.O.P.'s Shift to the Right

The story begins this way:

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said his father, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan would find themselves out of step with today's Republican Party because of its strict adherence to ideology and the intensity of modern partisan warfare. 

It goes on to portray Governor Bush as standing by his "assertion that he would accept a hypothetical deal" on taxes -- meaning violate the no new taxes pledge that is famously asked of GOP candidates by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

Now, we like the Bushes here. The Presidents Bush and Governor Bush. President Bush 41 (in whose administration I served as an aide to HUD Secretary Jack Kemp) just this week celebrated his 88th birthday. A Happy Birthday to a genuine American hero, a true gentlemen and one of the classy nice guys in this world, all rare qualities indeed.

But someone should speak up and challenge Jeb Bush's assessment of Ronald Reagan and the Bush 41 presidency because, respectfully -- it's baloney.

It does not reflect the reality of the Ronald Reagan in whose White House I worked. But importantly, what Jeb Bush is saying does accurately reflect the views, actions and results of the "moderate Republicans" of the day who dominated the Bush 41 White House.

Jeb Bush's rose-colored memories aside, the fact of the matter is that moderate Republicans in 1980 -- with George H.W. Bush in that mix -- went out of their way to accuse Ronald Reagan of what Jeb Bush now calls a "strict adherence to ideology" and engaging in "the intensity of modern partisan warfare."

Where better to check the record then in… yes indeed… the New York Times?

For example, a story from March 1, 1980 that is headlined:

Ford Declares Reagan Can't Win; Invites G.O.P. to Ask Him to Run

Now why exactly did the moderate former President Gerald Ford believe then-former Governor Reagan couldn't win a national election against then-President Jimmy Carter?

Sounding downright Jeb Bushian, the Times reported that Mr. Ford insisted "that Mr. Reagan would be a sure loser in November" because Reagan possessed "extreme and too-simple views." Said the former President:

"Every place I go and everything I hear, there is growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election. I hear more and more often that we don't want, can't afford to have a replay of 1964."

The Times was careful to have Ford restate the point for emphasis:

Asked if he shared the view that Mr. Reagan could not win, Mr. Ford said "it would be an impossible situation" because Mr. Reagan is "perceived as a most conservative Republican. A very conservative Republican." 

"A very conservative Republican can't win in a national election," he said, "can't win in a national election.'

Meaning that Mr. Reagan can't win?

"That's right," Mr. Ford said. 

Thus spoke former President Jeb Bush… ahhhh…sorry… Gerald Ford. Mr. Ford, of course, lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. Reagan went on to defeat Carter nine months later -- in a 44 state landslide. Four years after that, Reagan carried 49 states against Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale.

The point?

Jeb Bush's complaint isn't new and it isn't news. And the Times and the liberal media have been singing this old song for decades. 

Moderate Republicans dating to Dewey have been trotting out this tiresome argument that "most conservative" Republicans can't win -- usually after another moderate loses another election. Dewey, twice losing in 1944 and 1948 flying the moderate GOP flag, never caught the irony when he headed to Princeton to lecture in 1950 and boldly asserted that a conservative GOP would mean that "the Republicans would lose every election and the Democrats would win."

Likewise Governor Bush seems somehow not to realize that of the four presidential elections of 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2004 -- the elections involving his father and brother -- the only one with a Reaganesque margin was the election in which his father went out of his way to campaign as Ronald Reagan's conservative heir -- 1988. The others were either lost outright (in 1992, after a moderate first term produced a conservative rebellion) or won by unnecessarily close margins -- with the moderate "compassionate conservatism" as their domestic centerpiece in 2000 and 2004.

The real problem with Jeb Bush's assessment is not just that it's old news by some six or seven decades. Dewey Redux. The real problem is that Jeb Bush is decidedly making a ham-handed attempt to re-imagine both Reagan and the Reagan presidency -- not to mention the Bush 41 presidency -- in a fashion that, simply put, bears no resemblance to fact.

In other words, Jeb Bush is trying to re-write history in the service of one of the oldest stale political arguments that was long ago correctly relegated to the GOP's political attic.

To be accurate and fair, let's remember that former President Ford wasn't the only moderate Republican to be painting then-former Governor Reagan as some sort of extremist nut. There was a Reagan opponent in 1980 who delighted in following precisely the same script. And that would be, of course, one George Herbert Walker Bush.

What became known as "Reaganomics" -- the policy based on the "Kemp-Roth" tax cuts that in the 1980s would create 21 million jobs, break the back of inflation and cut the unemployment rate in half -- was famously derided by then-former Ambassador Bush as "voodoo economics."

On May 11, 1980, the Times reported that Bush, campaigning in Michigan, was aghast at Reagan's support for the "Kemp-Roth" tax cuts, named after congressional sponsors Jack Kemp and Bill Roth (the latter the Senator from Delaware). Bush, said the paper, insisted that Kemp-Roth was "a blueprint for economic chaos" and would increase inflation by "30%" and "substantially increase the rate of unemployment."

Alas, Ambassador Bush, like President Ford -- moderates both -- was proved wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Bush 41 presidency -- earned by campaigning on the Reagan legacy -- quickly became a managerial, process-oriented White House. Entirely devoid of conservative principle. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is why it lasted for one term and won a meager 37% of the vote in 1992.

Again, it's important to say this has nothing to do with Jeb Bush or his father or George W. It has to do with the issue -- the perpetual and tired issue -- of moderation. The pretense that moderates are not ideologically rigid when in fact moderation is not only rigid but more akin to a religious faith worshipping the great gods of elitism and big government, just less so. It is almost always a failure at the ballot box, and inevitably a loser as a governing philosophy. It matters not whether the name attached is Bush or Landon, Willkie, Dewey, Nixon (in 1960), Ford, Dole, McCain or whomever.

Let's focus here on two examples. The first from the Reagan and Bush 41 presidencies, the second from Bush 41 alone, to illustrate the point. Neither example the infamous breaking of President Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.

THE FIRST EXAMPLE: The Children's Television Act.

What was this? This was legislation -- from liberals but of course -- that injected the government, the Federal Communications Commission to be specific -- into the business of telling broadcasters how many minutes of commercial advertising could be allowed during children's television programming. During the week this was to be limited to 12 minutes an hour, and on Saturday morning it was reduced to 10.5 minutes an hour.

What was the reason for this Big Brotherish intrusion into America's living rooms? Well, you know, those damn commercials were ginning up the tykes to demand Fruit Loops or Tony the Tiger's Frosted Flakes or some other cereal that wasn't good for them. Not to mention the toys -- Oy, the toys! And the candy! America was drowning in a chorus of "Mommy I want…".

So, Uncle Sam would become Dr. No. And use the power of the government to put a stop to this because, well, parents are just powerless don't you know.

Now. Here's the Reagan-Bush difference.

This legislation was passed by Democrats in Congress and sent to the President's desk for signature. In 1988. And Ronald Reagan took one look at this, doubtless with a laugh -- and vetoed the bill.

Why? Because, he said in his veto message, while (you can imagine the polite nod of the head) the idea was about "laudable goals" in fact this raised a serious constitutional issue about the ability of the "Federal Government to oversee the programming decisions" of television broadcasters. Not to mention that it raised a red flag about those (read: prospective government regulators) who, in Reagan's words, might "discourage the creation of programs that might not satisfy the tastes of agency officials responsible for considering license renewals."

Thus, conservative principle at work. Reagan vetoed the bill on November 5, 1988. Done.

Well, no. Not done. This is Washington, some things never die. As our friend Mark Levin noted in his bestseller Liberty and Tyranny, "the Statist has an insatiable appetite for control." Sure enough, the Children's Television Act was passed yet again -- this time, a second time, in 1990.

What happened?

The Reagan presidency had been succeeded by the Bush presidency. And 22 months after Ronald Reagan's veto -- the bill once again reached the president's desk. In the way of the White House world, the staff vets and sends memos back and forth on these things. One horrified Reaganite, now in the Bush White House, discovered that President Bush was preparing to sign the bill. He did his memo and followed up. Why, he inquired of a senior Bush colleague, would the man who campaigned as Reagan's conservative heir ever consider signing such a thing? Everything about the Children's Television Act bespoke excessive not to mention dangerously intrusive government regulation -- which conservatives opposed on principle and with reason.

Answer from senior Bush colleague? First, the votes weren't there in House or Senate to sustain a veto, came the reply. Second, the Bushie told the Reaganite that said Reaganite "didn't really appreciate or understand the problem. After all, he [the Bush senior staffer] had four kids, and those Saturday morning ads on TV were awful. Something had to be done about them."

The appalled Reaganite dared to suggest the obvious. That it was the Bush guy's parenting job to deal with the issue. "Why not turn off the television set if it's a real problem. After all, kids don't buy TVs, parents buy them."

The Bush guy: Well, it's not that easy. His kids went to the homes of other kids, and he had no control over what went on over at those homes.

The Reaganite: Talk to the parents of the other kids if this is a problem. "If the situation is out of control -- which I seriously doubt is the case -- keep your kids at home." And on he went….how conservatives talk about family values, more parental involvement being a supposed "hallmark of this [the Bush] Administration."

Back and forth this went, yada yada, until the conversation mercifully ended for the Bush guy with a phone interruption.

The end result? President Bush refused to sign the bill -- but he refused to veto it. So, he just let it become law without his signature. Why the refusal to veto? Because, well, it might get overridden and thus make the President look bad.

Thus the opportunity for a principled stand on a small but pointed issue completely blown. The Children's Television Act is now, but of course, embedded as another brick in the Tower of Babel that is the federal government bureaucracy, with God knows how many regulations oozing forth telling television broadcasters the rules for the bureaucratic game of "Mother May I."

The mainstream media, but of course, never said a peep about all this. There was one man who did, however. That would be William F. Buckley, Jr., who from his perch at the National Review chastised Bush for abandoning Reagan's principled conservative opposition.

This story comes courtesy of Charles Kolb, who, after the implosion of the Bush 41 presidency in which White House he had served, wrote a book called White House Daze: The Unmaking of Domestic Policy in the Bush Years. A book in which Mr. Kolb, who served, as did I, in both the Reagan and Bush administrations and saw the considerable differences, wrote of how "the Bush Administration squandered the successes of the Reagan years and its unrivaled popularity after the Gulf War victory."

THERE ARE SIMILAR stories, dozens. But one involving my own boss at HUD, Secretary Jack Kemp will suffice. After two years of advancing an imaginative, energetic conservative urban agenda and getting exactly no one in the Bush White House to listen -- along comes, believe it or not, ex-President Jimmy Carter. With an urban agenda of his own for Atlanta, Georgia. The telling response from the Bush White House? The response to the man Ronald Reagan had trounced in 1980 -- against all the expectations of moderates like Gerald Ford? The same Ford who had in fact lost to Carter?

If they didn't want to pay attention to Kemp, the Bush red carpet would be rolled out for Carter.

The entire upper echelon of the domestic side of the Bush Cabinet was summoned for a meeting with the ex-President. As a matter of fact, a chastened Carter had been paying attention to his defeat -- and his ideas were more conservative than expected. Kemp met his ideas head on with his own, which he had been futilely trying to get tended to by most of the people in the room -- his colleagues -- not to mention President Bush himself and the Bush senior staff.

Meeting over, Kemp exploded to Kolb:

"Charlie, will you tell me what the hell is going on here? We spend two years trying to advance these ideas inside the Administration and nobody listens. Now, a former Democratic President like Jimmy Carter -- of all people! -- waltzes in and we're supposed to set up a damn command center for him in the White House? Are we crazy or what?"

The conclusion drawn was an unhappy one. That the Bush Administration had a "penchant for dealing with elites." The Bush inner circle, says Kolb, saw Reagan's old friend and ideological ally Kemp as, in Kolb's words, "a zealot."

Stop right here.

A zealot. There it is again. All the way back in the Bush 41 era the Bush inner circle was saying of Jack Kemp precisely what Jeb Bush is now in essence saying about the broader GOP. Which is another version of what moderate Gerald Ford was saying to the New York Times about Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Jack Kemp, writes Kolb, "was viewed as trying to advance a philosophy of government that was eons removed" from Bush's ideal of moderate Republicanism. And in fact, as the months moved on, this impression of elitism and a distaste for the common man emanating from the moderate Bush 41 White House cemented itself into the public mind. Or, as one angry conservative leader snapped in the New York Times:

"Mr. Bush has revived the image that haunted the Republicans for 50 years: the little man in the top hat in the Monopoly game."

One last story -- a story that is not from Kolb's book but once again from the pages of The New York Times.

The date: March 5, 1980.

And the subject of this story? None other than a 27-year-old Jeb Bush.

The story is set in Miami, where young Jeb, putting his fluent Spanish to work, is campaigning for his Dad in the middle stages of the 1980 Reagan versus Bush showdown. The story focuses on the Bush campaign's efforts to dent Reagan's considerable support in Miami's fabled Cuban- American community.

And lo and behold, we find this telling paragraph that perhaps does as much as anything to explain not only the behavior described above years later in the Bush 41 White House, but certainly rings a bell when reading Jeb Bush's remarks of today that suggests the GOP is moving too far right. Here's the paragraph:

But the Bush campaign has begun a last-minute effort that has split this city's "Little Havana" along class, economic and ideological lines. The wealthy aristocrats who fled here from Havana are siding with Mr. Bush, while working-class Cuban Republicans, many of whom still dream of overthrowing Mr. Castro, are loyal to Mr. Reagan.

In other words, the elitists were going with Bush, while "working-class Cuban Republicans" were going with Reagan. And young Jeb was leading the elitist charge of moderates.

Now.

Let's be clear.

The point here is not to pick on Governor Bush, or least of all President Bush 41. Both wonderful people. By all accounts, the mature Jeb Bush was a great Governor of Florida.

The issue here in fact has nothing to do with the Bushes -- but everything to do with the moderate Republican ideology. Being a GOP moderate is a problem that goes well beyond the Bush 41 presidency. Over the years this group has included not only former Presidents Ford and Nixon, but many others with names like John Lindsay, Charles Percy, George -- and Mitt -- Romney, Arlen Specter, John McCain, Bob Dole, Lindsey Graham, Tom Ridge, William Weld, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Christopher Shays and…a list that is longer still.

And as each of these people pursued what Barry Goldwater once called "the dime store New Deal", busily appealing to the elites of their cities, states and the nation at large, they were cast by the liberal media of the day as pillars of reason. (Unless they were nominated for president. In which case the media would savage them. The case of John McCain in 2008 being but the latest chapter in this long running story.)

The hard political fact is that what Jeb Bush is saying today, as discussed above, is nothing new. What he implies -- that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were on the same page ideologically -- is decidedly not true. One was a genuine conservative, the other a moderate. As that small issue of the Children's Television Act and the dealings with Jimmy Carter that so frustrated my old boss Jack Kemp -- he a serious Reagan ideological ally -- illustrates so vividly.

Was George Bush a loyal vice president to Reagan? You bet he was. It simply wasn't in his character to be otherwise. But once on his own, the moderate flag was raised to the top of the White House flag pole. And in a blink, the typical moderate rigidity led to his defeat. 

Ronald Reagan was explicit about the difference between conservatives and GOP moderates, which he described in his famous 1975 CPAC speech as the difference between "bold colors" and "pale pastels."

What Jeb Bush is suggesting now is nothing less than a return to the party of pale pastels. (He has also tweeted a bit of a "clarification".)

What Grover Norquist has pointed out with precision on the tax issue is not only the failed politics of the Jeb Bush approach -- which famously cut the Bush 41 presidency short -- but that in a policy sense the stated objectives are never, ever achieved. President Bush 41 got taken to the cleaners policy-wise. Taxes went up, the cuts never happened. The government kept growing. 

As Ronald Reagan well knew, the presidency had to be used not to accommodate the insatiable Statism of the left -- but to defeat it. If that meant a veto would be overridden -- so be it. Who cared what political pundits thought -- principle was at stake. If that meant air traffic controllers had to be fired -- so be it. The Soviet Union had to be defeated outright -- not negotiated with as an eternal equal.

This core belief, shared by Newt Gingrich as the newly installed Speaker in 1995, is the reason for those Clinton balanced budgets. Not, alas, the Bush 41 tax increase, as Governor Bush would have it. Newt Gingrich campaigned flat out for a Reaganesque House majority to replace the Moderate Republican Minority that had languished in place for a full 40 years. Gingrich used that Conservative Republican Majority and played hard ball with Bill Clinton. The government was famously shut down for a moment. But Clinton -- the American Left of the day -- was finally defeated for a breath or two on the tax and spending issue.

Newt Gingrich had done exactly what Reagan did -- stick to principle. Defeat the other side -- do not accommodate the other side. Why? Because to do so, to play the moderate game, always always always results in the expansion of government and more money down the debt rat hole.

Or, as Grover Norquist said in challenging Jeb Bush:

"He doesn't understand -- he's just agreed to walk down the same alley his dad did with the same gang. And he thinks he's smart. You walk down that alley, you don't come out. You certainly don't come out with 2:1 or 10:1."

Our friend Grover is spot on. Jeb Bush is wrong, dead wrong. Today's GOP, as Grover says, is in fact the party of "bold colors" that Ronald Reagan envisioned.

It meets the precise definition of a conservative party that Reagan was defining when he told the New York Times in the wake of Ford's defeat by Carter: "A political party is not a fraternal order."

The headline of that December 15, 1976 New York Times story? It was Reagan's response not only to the just defeated moderates led by Ford -- it was a caution to future generations of Republicans whomever they might be and wherever they might surface. Republicans like -- Jeb Bush. The headline read:

Reagan Urges His Party To Save Itself By Declaring Its Conservative Beliefs

Jeb Bush may well wish to bring back the days of pale pastels and fraternal orders, the days when the flag of moderation once flew over the Bush 41 White House.

But that flag never flew over the Reagan White House.

And history records that in declaring its conservative beliefs the Republican Party, America -- and the world -- were better off for that fact.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.