Lessons Not Learned

Lyn Nofziger

June 16, 2014

From time to time I have said that the self-inflicted wound from which all of Bush’s subsequent political troubles flowed was his violation of his “no new taxes” pledge because it cost him the one thing a president cannot afford to lose—his credibility with the electorate.

It is mid-December, 1992, and Republican politicians and other activists are in the sixth week of asking themselves four basic questions: 1. Why did George Bush lose the presidency? 2. Can the Republican Party regain the White House in 1996? 3. Who will be elected chairman of the Republican Party succeeding Richard Bond? 4. And who will be the Republican nominee for president in 1996?

The last three questions will have definitive answers in due course, though at this writing we can only guess what those answers will be. Regardless, none of them is nearly as fascinating as the first, which has so many partial answers and combinations of answers that it may never be possible to arrive at a single definitive answer.

However, it seems to me that most of the answers we are being given today by the columnists and pundits merely scratch the surface and before we can judge their validity we have to look at George Bush, the man, because to understand his defeat we have to understand the man and his career up to the presidency.

The truth of the matter is, George Bush became president by fluke, every bit as great as the flukes that earlier made Gerald Ford president. Bush was elected almost in spite of himself and he was defeated for the very reasons, had they never been apparent at the time, that he should never have been elected.

In the first place, his election in 1988 hinged on either or both of two accidents of fate: The first was his selection by Ronald Reagan to be his vice presidential running mate in 1980 and again in 1984. The second was the Democratic party’s selection in 1988 of Michael Dukakis as its presidential nominee.

Without going into detail it is hardly debatable that Dukakis was the weakest Democratic candidate at least since World War II and perhaps in this century. His nomination and his campaign together were enough to insure a Bush victory.

Additionally, Bush was seen by voters as Reagan’s logical and chosen heir. He had, after all, served—and served faithfully—as Reagan’s vice president for eight years. During that time he attended funerals and coronations and inaugurations without a serious blunder. Unlike his protege, James A. Baker III, he never leaked, never betrayed a confidence, never complained, never asserted his superiority.

All in all, in a job where it is difficult to be either a good vice president or a bad vice president and loyalty is the main prerequisite, Bush was the quintessential vice president, deferential to the president without being obsequious, pleasant to superior staffers and others, and making the most of the job that an earlier vice president, John Nance Garner, another Texan, said wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Thus, when Reagan left office with near-record popularity ratings, Bush the faithful, or so most Reaganites thought, rode into office on the love, affection and respect the electorate had for his mentor.

But the fact is, any careful study of George Bush will show that far from truly being a “faithful Reaganite” he was, until he became president, a chameleon, adapting with ease the political coloring of those under whom he served, whether it were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan. He was a superb underling, great at following policy, greater at being part of whichever team he was on.

As Reagan’s vice president he was the faithful Reaganite conservative, among other things supporting and defending Reagan’s economic philosophy that he once had called voodoo economics, and switching his position on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life. In the process he convinced most of the voters who made up the Reagan coalition—the conservatives, the blue-collar workers, the ethnic Catholics and the Christian fundamentalists, that he was one with Reagan, on issues, on philosophy, on attitude toward his fellow man.

But, in truth, he was not.

Ronald Reagan was a man of vision. George Bush is not.

Ronald Reagan had a philosophy of government. George Bush has none.

Ronald Reagan was an includer, rallying people to the left of him and to the right of him to his cause. George Bush is an excluder, driving Reaganites from his administration, making no effort to hold together the Reagan coalition.

Ronald Reagan is a forgiving man. George Bush is a grudge holder.

Perhaps most importantly, Ronald Reagan related to the people of middle America, George Bush does not, never has, can’t.

And old-line Reaganite named Jim Stockdale (not the admiral) who has admirable political instincts, stumbled across this truth early in the general election campaign.

“I will never again vote for the second-generation wealth,” he proclaimed, referring specifically to Bush. “They don’t understand us, they don’t relate to us, they look down on us.”

He went on to point out that it is difficult for a person who grew up in the lap of luxury, lived on estates, went to private schools, never had to worry about earning a living or paying his bills to relate to people whose parent had to work for a living, who went to public schools and who scrounge to pay their bills and taxes.

Not only is Bush old wealth, but also he surrounded himself with others of the same ilk: Baker whom he made secretary of state and later, though Baker fought it, his chief of staff; Richard Darman, whom he named to head of the Office of Management and Budget; Nicholas Brady, whom he made secretary of the Treasury; and Robert Mossbacher, whom he made secretary of Commerce.

Persons who have never had to worry about earning a living have little in common with those who do, which undoubtedly is why Bush had a difficult time coping with, or even recognizing, the recession that dogged the last two years of his administration.

It also may be the reason why the advice Bush received from this closed coterie of advisers was never the proper advice he needed in order to cope with the realities of governing or of being re-elected.

Interestingly, in the beginning of his administration Bush had one adviser to whom he related and paid close attention even though that adviser came from different social and economic strata and never pretended otherwise. That person was Lee Atwater, a solid political operative who ran Bush’s 1988 campaign and then took over as chairman of the Republic National Committee, from which position he served as Bush’s political adviser. Atwater was the epitome of middle America and for the first fifteen months of the Bush administration kept the president on a track that almost surely would have led to re-election.

But Atwater was stricken with brain cancer in the spring of 1990 and though he lingered for a year he no longer was able to serve as political confidant and adviser. The one other man who might have served Bush well in that role was Baker, a competent politician and close personal friend of the president. But Baker was too busy furthering his own ambitions at the department of state to move to his friend’s side in his hour of need.

Thus, with Atwater’s death Bush, already severely hampered by a lack of vision or a steadfast political philosophy, was left without a political compass or rudder and without anyone to warn him of the political dangers that lurked in breaking his word on taxes or in relying on the incomplete outcome of an inconsequential war in a far away land to carry him to victory in 1992.

It is entirely possible to trace the beginning of Bush’s downward slide to the onset of Lee Atwater’s cancer.

The George Bush who succeeded Ronald Reagan as president was not the George Bush Reagan thought he had picked as his successor.

Far from determining to follow in Reagan’s footsteps he set out to carve out his own path without having the slightest idea of what direction in which to head. He made this clear in his first acceptance speech, declaring no new taxes, an obvious slap at Reagan for having raised taxed, and promising a kinder and gentler nation, as if Reagan’s America were neither kind enough or gentle enough.

But making a speech in which you read someone else’s words is one thing; developing and carrying out a cohesive philosophy of government is something else. Bush was able to do the first but never figured out, if indeed he tries, how to do the second.

From time to time I have said that the self-inflicted wound from which all of Bush’s subsequent political troubles flowed was his violation of his “no new taxes” pledge because it cost him the one thing a president cannot afford to lose—his credibility with the electorate.

And while that may be true, the wound itself was inflicted because of Bush’s absolute inability to chart a course for himself or for his country or even, when left to his own devices, to follow one that had been charted by someone else.

Some men are born to lead; most men are born to follow. Ambition sometimes puts men born to follow in leadership positions, where, with rare exceptions, they fail. That is the tragedy of George Bush; when he was called upon, at his own urgings, to lead a nation and to inspire it, it turned out that he could do neither.

Unfortunately, Bush’s tragedy is also the nation’s. It is too late for Bush to learn from his. Let us hope it is not too late for the nation.

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