What Donald Trump can learn from George H. W. Bush

By on December 4, 2018

George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States died at age 94 on Nov. 30. Mr. Bush served as President from 1988 to 1992, Vice President under Ronald Reagan from 1980 to 1988, also served at various times as the head of the CIA, the chair of the RNC and ambassador to the United Nations.

Before that, he served in the navy during the second World War. He was born in Massachusetts and the son of Senator Prescott Bush before moving to Texas. In other words, it is difficult to think of a more American story than that of the late president. Perhaps the most characteristic moment of his life is a note that he left for President Clinton in the Oval Office after the 1992 election, in which Bush was defeated. It read in part:

“…I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good Luck — George”

It is difficult to imagine such a gracious concession in today’s political environment. Nobody should operate under the delusion that things in the good old days were good and civil, but they were certainly weren’t as tense than they are today.

And for the current occupant of the White House, what can the 41st president teach him?

Firstly, Trump should remember why he was sent to office he now occupies. President Bush ran for office on the promise of continuing the Reagan revolution. In the now infamous line, he promised “read my lips: no new taxes.”

That he went on to raise taxes played a significant role in his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. In that way Bush may have had the opposite problem Trump did. Bush ran as somebody that would continue the traditional Republican order, and then tried to govern as his own man. Trump ran as an outsider, but has governed as a traditional Republican. The lesson for President Trump is simple; keep the promises you make. Remember, Trump ran against the Republican orthodoxy on many issues and cleared out a primary field of over a dozen Republicans because of it.

Trump should stick to his campaign promises to the greatest degree possible.

This means things like the border wall and repealing Obamacare, which is unlikely as long as Democrats control the House of Representatives. But it also means cracking down on lobbying, imposing term limits and improving infrastructure, all of which seem to have been moved to the backburner, and all of which the resurgent Democratic Party may be interested in negotiating on if they can avoid recoiling from Trump’s mere involvement.

And the president’s extremely high approval ratings from his own party mean he should be able to get more than a few Republicans on board. Going into 2020, this is all the more important as it looks increasingly likely Democrats will nominate someone who runs far to the left.

Back in 1988, Bush beat Dukakis specifically because Dukakis was perceived as somebody who was out of the mainstream. I believe that Trump can portray himself as somebody who is willing to reach across to achieve the things he wants.

The problem with the president’s current approach is that it alienates both types of swing voters. Those who voted for Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016 are still off put by the president’s rhetoric, even if he governs not unlike Romney would have. And those who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 can simply be reminded that Trump has governed like the man they voted against in 2012 and they return to the Democratic column, as it appears they did in 2018. To sum it up, the president needs to pick a lane and decide if he is going to be defined by his populist rhetoric and impulses, or his traditionally conservative policymaking.

Secondly, Mr. Trump would do well to learn from President Bush’s grace. Many things have been said on the subject of the current president and his Twitter habits, so much so that I probably don’t have to spend much time listing all of the specifics. To be straight to the point, often the best response is no response.

That doesn’t mean President Trump must totally abandon his pugilistic style, and H. W. Bush was certainly not above hard hitting political attacks. However, the more outlandish of Trump’s tweets are not doing him any favors. It is unusual that the President’s approval ratings are mired in the low-to-mid 40s with the economy doing so well.

Additionally, the President should learn how to navigate around losses.

The 41st president did not coast into the office.

Bush lost twice when running for the Senate in Texas, lost the 1980 presidential primary to Ronald Reagan and lost the presidency in 1992 to Bill Clinton. In every case, he acknowledged the defeat and worked to move past it. While the 2018 midterms were not an unmitigated disaster for the GOP, the House is now controlled by the Democrats cannot be taken as a good sign, even if it is the usual for a president’s first midterm. Donald Trump cannot campaign as if the 2016 miracle will repeat itself. It very well might, but it would be a bad idea to rely on it.

This is not a call for Trump to become H.W. Bush, that was not why he was elected, and to a degree the ascension of Trump to the Republican nomination was a rejection of the Bush project in the GOP, as embodied by the late president’s son, Jeb. In my view, that was a necessary thing. But like the rest of us, a lot of good could be done by studying the life of the 41st President.

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