Not content to run John Boehner out of office, the most extreme members of the Republican caucus tried to scuttle plans to elect Randian conservative Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House because they found Ryan too “left wing” for their tastes. “Do you know how crazy this election is?” candidate John Kasich moaned on Tuesday. “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?”
Many accounts of the rise of conservatism tend to separate radicals from moderates, portraying extremism within the Republican Party as episodic and relatively recent. For example, William M. Daley, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, declared that “The GOP’s dysfunction All Started with Sarah Palin.” The roots of extreme conservatism lie deeper in our political culture, however. Figures that we might now remember as “moderate” — like former President George H. W. Bush — played an often unacknowledged role in promoting extremism on the campaign trail.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the elder President Bush is “perplexed” by this year’s Republican presidential campaign, charging his former chief of staff John H Sununu with having “no feeling for the electorate anymore.” But remember that in the former president’s 1988 presidential campaign, demagoguery and thinly-coded racial appeals played a major role. President Bush, abetted by his campaign chief, Lee Atwater, ran a largely substance-free campaign in which he condemned his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a “card carrying member of the ACLU,” repeatedly recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and even visited a flag factory as a way to impugn Dukakis’s patriotism. And the notorious “Willie Horton” ad has gone down in history as a vicious appeal to white fears of the black rapist. As Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.” Bush’s allies also contributed their own innuendos, such as Idaho Senator Steve Symms’s false claim that Dukakis and his wife had burned an American flag in an anti-Vietnam War protest (see “Dukakis Camp Denies Wife Burned U.S. Flag,” Lawrence World-Journal, Aug 25, 1988, 3C). In all these ways, the senior President Bush and his surrogates contributed to the political atmosphere of character assassination and what we might call an “us-versus-them” mentality that he now denounces.
In rhetorical style, Bush was there before Donald Trump. Indeed, his mocking dismissal of Al Gore, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in 1992, as the “ozone man,” could easily have come from Trump’s lips. Delivered with a sneer, the term “liberal” (as in “Massachusetts liberal”) became Bush’s epithet for Dukakis. That political identification never really recovered.
Bush’s campaign strategy and rhetoric presaged not only the general nastiness of today’s GOP primary campaign but also the extreme positions held by most Congressional Republicans. For example, they now deny climate change and oppose the carbon tax, a policy once seen as a conservative, market-based alternative to environmental regulation. Moreover, the 1988 Republican Platform called for the elimination of “funding for organizations which advocate or support abortion” and opposed programs that “provide birth control or abortion services.” Whereas Ronald Reagan did not mention abortion in his 1980 acceptance speech, Bush, the one-time pro-choice Congressional candidate, highlighted his anti-abortion views in his 1988 address. The former supporter of family planning adopted positions that we associate with today’s Congressional radicals who seek to defund Planned Parenthood.
George H. W. Bush also upheld far-right positions in economic policy. “Read my lips: no new taxes!” he pledged at the 1988 at the Republican National Convention, even though eight years earlier he had denounced candidate Ronald Reagan’s supply-side vision as “voodoo” economics. In 1988, Bush cast his lot with the Proposition 13 tax “reformers” (who slashed property taxes and public services in 1978) and Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” first promoted in 1986. Ultimately, Bush broke his pledge. But by buying into an economic vision in which the state could only cut taxes and never, under any circumstances, increase them was to promote a highly negative vision of the government’s role in maintaining economic prosperity, fairness, and in supporting popular and necessary public expenditures for things like education, infrastructure, and scientific research.
George H. W. Bush may not always have governed from a far-right position. Nonetheless, his 1988 campaign turned the tide in favor of an extreme campaign culture in the Republican Party that he today purports to lament.