The Bush Consensus

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The first major loss of George H.W. Bush’s political career came in an election where he made an explicit appeal to racists and hardline anticommunists of the far-right.

From a laudatory essay presidential historian Michael Beschloss wrote about Bush in 1995 (emphasis mine):

Politics was easier for Ronald Reagan: for every minute of his political career, he had the luxury of being in natural harmony with his party.

Not Bush. The first harbinger of this was in the spring of 1962, when Houston friends persuaded him to run for chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, whose slogan was “Conservatives Unite!” The local party was in imminent danger of takeover by the John Birch Society. During a speech near Houston, Bush was asked where he stood on the “Liberty Amendments.” This referred to planks in the John Birch program such as “get the U.S. out of the U.N.” and “abolish the Federal Reserve.” Baffled, Bush turned to his wife, working on her needlepoint, who could offer no help. Bluffing, he told the questioner he needed time to study “these important amendments.” Like a Puritan in Babylon, Bush tried to broaden his party and mollify the Birchers, telling a colleague, “There’s some good in everybody.” The reply: “George, you don’t know these people. They mean to kill you!”

Having learned that lesson, Bush swung to the opposite extreme when he ran for the Senate in 1964. He opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He wished to arm Cuban exiles to go after Fidel Castro. He denounced the United Nations. The Democrats were “too soft” on Vietnam: if the generals asked for nuclear weapons against the North, they should not be ignored. .....

Amid the national Johnson landslide, Bush lost the election with only 44 percent of the vote. He told his Houston minister, “I took some of the far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it.”


Bush did do “it” again. Just ask Keith Jackson. But Bush and the post-Jim Crow Republican Party he played a vital role in shaping also learned how to mainstream the right, stripping of it of whatever anti-establishment tendencies it had in order to made sure it conformed to the post-World War II order. And so Bush’s death on Saturday at the age of 94 also represents the death of something else. Not honor or dignity or statesmanship or any of the qualities pinned on him in this weekend’s many laudatory obituaries. Above all else, Bush’s death is a reminder that his version of consensus in D.C. is dead.

In practice, this consensus featured an interventionist foreign policy that purports to depose dictators but helps to prop others up, privatization of essential public services, over-policing and mass incarceration, and derailing civil rights protections—basically, the Reagan presidency. Bush is not solely responsible for this ideology becoming the standard in American politics, but he played a vital role in shaping it as someone who, from the mid-60s to early 90s, enjoyed nearly unparalleled political success: Congressman, ambassador to the UN, Republican National Committee chair, de facto ambassador to China, CIA director, vice president, and president.


By the time his presidential re-election bid came around in 1992, Bush and his ilk were so successful at solidifying this consensus that Bill Clinton, the Democrat who ultimately won, outflanked him on the right on issues such as crime and taxes.

Things, of course, have changed since the early 1990s. Even before his death, Bush was compared with Donald Trump, the last president of his lifetime. CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote that by inviting Trump to his funeral, Bush performed “a rare moment of unity and a short-term truce in the rancorous politics swirling around the crisis-stricken Trump presidency.” A short-term truce for whom?


The 41st president did more than enough awful things on his own to not necessitate a mention of the current president in any critique of his life and career. But without George H.W. Bush and the long, rightward drift of the Republican Party he helped build—the conservative wing of which he repeatedly catered to over the long course of his career—and the longstanding D.C. consensus he helped propagate for decades, through several economic recessions and failed wars and lapses of accountability for any of it all until the public voted to jump off a cliff rather than stand on the ledge for one more second, there is no President Donald Trump. And so Bush’s legacy—both his successes and failures—lives on in the current White House.