Tuesday, we citizens will experience something rare—a George W. Bush sighting. Forty-three will set aside the oils and acrylics long enough to appear alongside President Obama in Dallas, at the memorial service for the five slain police officers.
The sight of Bush, especially under such a tragic circumstance that will have people yearning for any small sign of national unity, will make for some wistful “gosh, he wasn’t so bad in retrospect” columns. Come on. In most ways, he was that bad. I hardly have to list them, starting with the worst military decision in American history.
But he wasn’t bad in every single way, and you just have to conjure up the memory of Bush’s two or three good moments to realize how loco the post-Bush GOP has become and how much work needs to be done just to bring the GOP back to being where it was when Bush was in office, when it was still a plain old war-starting, economy-wrecking political party, without (most of) the open racism and paranoid sociopathy.
So a few examples. First, Bush’s visit to that mosque after the 9/11 attacks was gracious and leaderly. I have trouble thinking of a single Republican today who’d do such a thing. OK, I can think of a few senators who might instinctively be willing to do such a thing. But I doubt any of them would have the courage to risk the wrath of the base, the same base that of course gave the plurality of its votes this year to the candidate who promised a ban on Muslims entering the country.
And remember, Trump said last November that the United States would have “absolutely no choice” but to close down some mosques. A disconcerting number of Republicans agree. A poll taken around that time found that 27 percent of Republicans favored shutting down all U.S. mosques.
Then there was immigration reform, which Bush genuinely did try to push. Sure, he and Karl Rove did it partly for political reasons, to get a bigger share of the growing Latino vote; but so what, this is politics. Getting votes is what politicians are supposed to do. Bush came pretty close to getting the bill passed, until the base got all Limbaughed up and said no way.
As with Bush’s mosque visit, we can imagine some Republicans who would in their hearts support an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship, as the Kennedy-McCain bill that Bush endorsed did. But it’s a lot harder to think of many who’d take the political risk of saying so publicly.
Even on guns, more germane here because Micah Johnson used a military-style semi-automatic rifle in his assault, Bush was in theory willing to do something decent. It was Congress that let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004. Bush had signaled that he would sign a renewal—a position supported by all the police fraternal organizations. Yes, Bush actually went against the NRA on this one, although it must be said that he didn’t spend any political capital trying to get Congress to see things his way.
Here again, we can imagine a few Republicans who might privately agree. But there are none who’d actually stand up to the NRA on the question of assault weapons. Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, for example, who worked with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on the failed bill to end the gun-show loophole, supports a few gun-control measures, but he firmly opposes an assault weapons ban.
Part of what’s happened here is this: When a party has a president, that president’s policies are basically the party’s. The Republicans have been a pro-free-trade party since who knows when. But if Donald Trump should somehow get elected, the Republican Party will be an anti-free-trade party, because Trump says so. That’s one of the few unfettered powers of the presidency.
So the Republican Party of George W. Bush was pro-immigrant and not anti-Muslim, at least until Bush’s popularity cratered, because those were Dubya’s positions. But now the party has no president and very few senators or members of the House who have to go win votes in even purple states and districts, let alone blue ones. So for the last few years, “policy,” to the extent it has even existed in the GOP, has been set by the Tea Party and radio hosts and so on, since none of the more establishment figures have had the stones to stand up to them.
Which would be a nice thing to see Bush do with his life. His reluctance to criticize Obama has been admirable. But his silence as his own party has nominated a man with the open and fervid support of white supremacists is less so. It’s nice that he’s found himself a hobby and is avid about it and is even apparently not bad at it (one critic compared him to Chaim Soutine, which is awfully high praise by my lights). But he can’t be content to just say nothing forever, can he? His party has been taken over by an open racist. Whatever Bush was, he wasn’t that.
He’s fated to be remembered as one of the worst presidents. He must know this. But as Jimmy Carter has shown us, a lousy president can do pretty well for himself by becoming an admirable ex-president. After Trump (hopefully) loses, Bush should try to lead the GOP back to planet Earth. It’d be nice if he uttered a sentence or two along these lines in Dallas—a little rap on the knuckles of “those who would inflame division” or some such. The best remaining way for Bush to salvage his reputation is to trash Trump’s.