Last Tuesday, I stood silently inside the rotunda of the Capitol paying respects to President George H.W. Bush. Along with James Baker — his secretary of state, longtime friend, closest confidante, and Bush family consigliere — George H.W. Bush is the man I most admire in political history. Together, they were the right leaders to guide the United States through a pivotal time in world history.
A war hero, a successful entrepreneur, a congressman, chairman of the Republican Party, ambassador to the United Nations and China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and vice president, George H.W. Bush was arguably the most qualified person ever to become president.
Much has been written about the 41st president’s character traits: his grace, humility, compassion, restraint, and commitment to public service, all sorely lacking today. Though their administrations were longer, George H.W. Bush’s policy achievements make his presidency more consequential than those of the men between whom he was sandwiched by in office.
Though well-known, Bush’s foreign policy successes bear repeating. He oversaw the fall of the Berlin Wall. He masterfully reunified Germany over the skepticism of longstanding Western European allies like the United Kingdom and France. He brought into NATO a reunified Germany over the skepticism of the Soviet Union. And he oversaw the eventual peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bush expelled Iraq’s military from Kuwait without getting mired in a decadelong struggle such as the one that defined his son’s presidency. His administration successfully negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and negotiated much of the Uruguay Round, which transformed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade into the World Trade Organization. Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and Harvard economist, would correctly note that the Uruguay Round was the largest tax cut in world history. Despite misleading rhetoric from the current president, NAFTA has been a tremendous success for the United States.
Domestically, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and an expansion of the Clear Air Act. Breaking a 1988 campaign promise, Bush signed a three-point increase to the top marginal income tax rate, from 28 percent to 31 percent, as part of a budget deal to lower the deficit. The tax hike Bush signed still causes much consternation among free-market organizations and publications, though they never acknowledge that President Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the tax-cutting movement, signed 11 tax hikes compared to Bush’s one. When viewed in light of Bush’s efforts to cut tariffs and expand free trade through NAFTA and the Uruguay Round, the 41st president’s tax-cutting record is admirable.
A dedicated internationalist, George H.W. Bush understood that America is stronger and safer when standing shoulder to shoulder with allies, and that expanding commercial ties isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. This brand of Republicanism stands in stark contrast to the party’s standard bearer today, who has has spurned allies and wants to eschew valuable trading relationships. While Bush firmly believed that any burden of American global leadership was vastly outweighed by the benefits, President Trump embraces a victimhood mentality on the world stage: our NATO allies do not pay their “fair share”; countries are “ripping off” the United States through trade; and immigrants pose security and health risks to the United States. All of which are demonstrably false.
America needs a strong, thoughtful, center-right Republican Party. At the moment, however, the prospects for this are not good. At a time when women and young people are fleeing the party in record numbers due to an abrasive and boorish president, the GOP faces a choice.
Will it be the party of angry, aging white men that form the president’s political base? Or will it hearken back to a bygone era exemplified by the quiet competence and proud moderation of George H.W. Bush? The former will lead to inexorable decline, while the latter could lead to rejuvenation.
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