Political Hay

The Mitt H.W. Bush Problem

Arrogance, hostility to conservatives sank the moderate president elected as Reagan's heir.

By 4.12.12

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"I want a kinder, and gentler nation." -- Vice President George H.W. Bush accepting the 1988 Republican presidential nomination

"Kinder and gentler than whom?" -- First Lady Nancy Reagan on learning of Bush's line

There was an uneasiness right from the start.

But with the help of a lot of people -- conservatives -- Ronald Reagan's vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush, successfully convinced Republicans that he was in fact Ronald Reagan's philosophical and political heir.

With ex-Reagan aide Lee Atwater running the Bush campaign, Bush tore into his liberal opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

The stunned liberal media was agog, then furious.

There was Bush visiting a flag factory to emphasize his support of the pledge of allegiance -- which his opponent opposed. There was Bush in the polluted Boston Harbor -- Dukakis's back yard! -- exposing the liberal "environmentalist" as having a poor environmental record. Then there was Willie Horton… the issue of a convicted murderer given a weekend furlough by Dukakis. Horton never returned, instead showing up in Maryland where he raped a woman, committing armed robbery and assault (of the woman's fiancé) in the bargain. No less than Dukakis primary opponent Senator Al Gore had tried to surface this issue, but it went nowhere among liberals. Bush jumped on it.

By the end of the campaign, stunned liberals watched Dukakis, once leading Bush by 17 points, lose 40 states and capture only 45 percent of the vote.

The Bush era began.

And immediately got off track.

Wrote Steven F. Hayward of the Reagan to Bush transition in The Age of Reagan:

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. 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 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." 

The tone was set. And it quickly got worse.

On a visit to the Bush White House sometime after the inauguration, wearing Reagan presidential cufflinks, I was told in a whisper that anything reminding of Reagan was verboten with the new crowd. Except of course, the "new" crowd was really the "old" crowd -- Reagan's vice president's crowd -- that had sworn allegiance to conservative principles in the 1988 campaign. Now? Problems. It was becoming more apparent by the day that conservatism seemed to be a political fashion, not a set of principles. "This isn't the Reagan White House anymore," growled a Bush aide to the New York Times at reports restive conservatives were already starting to stir, "it's the Bush White House."

Reagan's White House political director and 1984 campaign manager Ed Rollins later wrote of a conversation he had with then-Vice President Bush about the 1986 Reagan tax cuts.

On one occasion Rollins was the guest at a dinner given by the Bushes at the Naval Observatory, the official vice-presidential residence. At one point the two men were standing on the porch of the residence discussing the Reagan program. Wrote Rollins:

Then our conversation turned to the tax bill working a tortured path through Congress.

"I don't think this tax thing is such a good idea," Bush confided. "What do you make of it?"

Rollins was dumbfounded. The Reagan tax cuts were the centerpiece of the conservative economic program. Rollins was understated in his astonished reply:

"I think it's pretty important to the president."

Replied the Vice President:

"But he's gonna pay a heavy price for all this. I think we need more revenue, not less."

An astonished Rollins would later write:

It was a fleeting though telling insight into the psyche of the man who would probably be the next president… signaling that he didn't agree with Reagan's desire to lower tax rates. 

Now, mind you, this conversation took place as the Reagan tax cuts of 1986 were front and center on the agenda. They would later pass, continuing to build on the tax and budget cuts of 1981 and providing some 21 million jobs in the Reagan era.

Two years later, George H.W. Bush stood in front of the 1988 Republican National Convention and said:

"And I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent, my opponent now says, my opponent now says, he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into. My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.'"

Let's move the story ahead one year from that moment.

It is now 1989. And Ed Rollins is Executive Director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) -- the political arm of House Republicans. The latter, in 1989, still in the minority in the House.

He attends a political dinner in Washington, a dinner at which now-President Bush's pollster, Bob Teeter, is present. Says Teeter:

"How long do we have to hold the tax pledge? Can we give it up this year?"

Rollins was incredulous. George H.W. Bush was now president. To get to the White House he had run a campaign highlighting himself as Reagan's vice president, the heir of the Reagan Revolution. He had won. Now, suddenly, here was the same thought-process Rollins had witnessed that long-ago night on the porch of the vice-presidential residence with Bush himself.

Rollins replied:

"What do you mean give it up?"

Teeter:

"Darman [Budget Director Dick Darman, a longtime Bush ally and moderate] says the numbers won't work."

Rollins, even more incredulous:

"You're going to get killed. This is the most sacred pledge he [Bush] made. If you raise taxes in this term, he can kiss his ass away in '92, and he's going to take a bunch of House members with him."

Rollins' protest not to abandon a core conservative principle went unheeded.

In September of 1990, President Bush broke his "read my lips" pledge. In a stroke the Republican Party was divided. Party elders backed the President -- young Congressman Newt Gingrich led more than a 100 House Republicans in opposition.

By 1992, President Bush had drawn a primary challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, Buchanan winning about 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. The New York Times described the results as a "roar of anger" from within his own party to Bush. By year's end, just as Rollins had predicted, the abandonment of conservative principle by Bush had bluntly terminated the Bush presidency. The President who had poll numbers as high as 90 percent in the wake of the Gulf War barely scraped together 37 percent of the vote.

What's the lesson here for the Romney campaign?

What killed the Bush 41 presidency?

From the day after the 1988 election, the Bush forces began constructing a presidency not based on conservative principle but rather the personality of the president. Loyalty is one of the best of human qualities. Yet when it came to governing, the Bush team put the emphasis on loyalty to a personality over loyalty to principle.

Hence the Romney problem.

Now that Mitt Romney is closing in on the GOP nomination, what next? And what next after that if there is a win in November?

Will nominee Romney run on principle -- or personality and biography?

Will a Romney administration be about conservative principle -- or will it become another George H.W. Bush era? The second term President Bush 41 was once assured of but was kissed away when the administration went out of its way to thumb its nose at conservatives? Where the focus is on Mitt the great guy, the Ward Cleaver of America -- with a White House filled with staff running around in a swagger thinking they are tough, pragmatic guys -- while actually setting themselves up for a staggering historic failure.

Are there ways to avoid this? To send an immediate message to the conservative "non-Romney" base of the GOP that has repeatedly -- almost desperately -- tried to find a suitable nominee other than Romney? A base that in fact has voted overwhelmingly, albeit in votes split between Gingrich, Santorum, and others, for conservative principles.

Yes. Three ways right off the bat.

The Vice-Presidential Pick. First, pick a strong conservative vice president with policy chops and personality for the ticket. Bush had a chance to pick his defeated rival, then Congressman Jack Kemp. Kemp was a real Reaganite, a conservative star in the day. But that was not the kind of running mate Bush wanted, his preference for personal loyalty and deference causing him to blanche at the thought of the forceful Kemp as his number two. Instead Bush quite deliberately picked the young then-Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, a country club Republican who in the day was seen by many as not having the intellectual or personal heft for the job. Don't shy from picking a conservative star who can stand on equal footing with the presidential nominee.

The GOP Platform: In 1988, under the guidance of Reaganite Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign was bold, challenging, constantly on offense. The Bush "read my lips" pledge was correct as both conservative policy and conservative politics, a key component of the 1988 platform. The fact that Bush went back on his pledge once president -- and then lost resoundingly just as Rollins predicted he would -- should only emphasize the importance of Romney making a strong stand for conservative principle and taking the challenge directly to Obama.

Play Offense in Obamaville: In 1932, Democrats talked about "Hoovervilles" -- the shanty towns of the day that were constructed by the homeless. The concept was thought up by one Charles Michelson -- the head PR guy of the Democratic National Committee.

Taking a page from Michelson, Romney should take Americans on a visual tour of "Obamavilles." Foreclosed and underwater homes, unemployment lines, churches under assault by federal bureaucrats, doctors forced to close or realign practices to comply with Obamacare, gas stations charging $4 and $5 for gas, black-on-black crime, and on and on and on through the endless list of the victims of class warfare economics.

By word, by act, by deed -- Romney needs to aggressively rally the conservative base.

It's all very good to gain the endorsement of former President Bush 41. To trek to Houston for the courtesy photo op with a genuine war hero and a true gentleman.

But Mitt Romney and his team need to remember one thing.

George H. W. Bush will forever be a one-term president when in fact he could have been a two-term president and one of history's greats. But so swept up was the Bush 41 team in de-conservatizing the new Bush Administration when taking over from the Reagan presidency that they effectively threw the baby out with the bathwater.

It was a huge mistake. And they paid a real price for it -- in the politics of the day not to mention the history books.

In the glow of achieving the GOP presidential nomination, Team Romney should remind themselves hourly: 

It's not about their mortgages.

It's about their ideology.

And if they don't remember this, they will fail.

A failure neither the country -- nor Mitt Romney -- can afford.

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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.