In an interview that aired Thursday with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, one thing about George W. Bush was: He is fundamentally at odds with the current version of the Republican Party on virtually every front.
On the US Capitol riot of January 6, which many Republican elected officials have sought to downplay in its aftermath, Bush said this: “The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a constitutionally mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.”
On whether the 2020 election was stolen, as former President Donald Trump (and many of his allies in Congress) continue to insist, Bush had a one-word answer: “No.”
On Trump’s takeover of the GOP, Bush was dismissive: “History and the United States has shown these populist movements begin to fritter over time, and so I’m optimistic about democracy.”
On immigration, Bush rejected the approach adopted by Trump to weaponize the issue during his 2016 campaign (“Build the wall!”) and during his time in the White House. “There needs to be an overhaul, which means that we need to get politics out of the system and get sober-minded people focusing on a) what’s best for our economy and b) what’s best for our country,” he said.
And on President Joe Biden, who Trump and Republicans have insisted is in the early stages of a socialist takeover of government, Bush was praiseworthy: “He’s off to a good start, it looks like.”
The contrast — on nearly every issue of import to the country — is stunning. And speaks to how radically the Republican Party and what it stands for has been transformed by Trump’s rise and continued death grip on the GOP.
What’s remarkable is that Bush wasn’t the head of the Republican Party all that long ago! We’re not talking about someone who led the GOP in the 1970s or 1980s. Bush was president in the 2000s — and was the last Republican elected president before Trump won in 2016. Less than a decade separate Bush’s presidency from Trump’s. And yet, Bush’s version of what it means to be a Republican is unrecognizable from where the GOP stands today.
Remember that Bush ran as a self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative.” He repeatedly pushed for comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for those in the United States illegally. And perhaps most importantly, he was relentlessly focused on decency and civility in politics and life.
As Bush put it in a 2018 conversation at the George W. Bush Institute:
“I’m not sure that respect and civility are a political philosophy so much as they are an understanding of the importance of decency in society, whether in the political arena or how you treat your neighbor. There’s no question we need respect and civility.”
Contrast that with Trump’s repeated assertions that his political opponents were, among other things, “evil.” One example (of many): Acquitted by the Senate over impeachment charges related to his handling of the US relationship with Ukraine, Trump used the forum of the National Prayer Breakfast to blast the “dishonest and corrupt people” who had pushed for his impeachment. He also questioned whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) actually prayed for him; “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so,” said Trump.
Trump, in fact, expressly positioned himself — and his followers — as a rejection of the establishment politics that he said the Bushes represented. “We need another Bush in office about as much as we need Obama to have a 3rd term,” Trump tweeted way back in 2013. During the 2016 campaign he would regularly mock Jeb Bush, the younger brother of George W. Bush and the perceived front-runner for the GOP nomination at the start of the race, as out of touch with the current views of the Republican base.
And the Bushes responded in kind. The late Barbara Bush, the mother of George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, said this in 2016 of Trump: “He doesn’t give many answers to how he would solve problems. He sort of makes faces and says insulting things.” Neither George W. Bush nor his wife, Laura, voted for Trump in 2016; they both chose “none of the above” option, according to a spokesman. Bush didn’t make public who he voted for in 2020 but in the days immediately after the election, as Trump was continuing to contest the results, Bush very publicly congratulated Biden for his victory.
“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said. “The President-elect reiterated that while he ran as a Democrat, he will govern for all Americans. I offered him the same thing I offered Presidents Trump and Obama: my prayers for his success, and my pledge to help in any way I can.”
Bush’s comments that were released on Thursday about the state of the country come in the wake of a series of retirement announcements by Republican senators who closely identified with his preferred interpretation of what it means to be a Republican. The decisions by Sens. Roy Blunt (Missouri), Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), Richard Burr (North Carolina) and even Richard Shelby (Alabama) suggest that the rise of Trumpism — and the resultant decline in Bushism — has made the GOP a place they no longer feel entirely comfortable in.
Polling suggests that view of those senators — and the 43rd president — are in the minority within the party. Trump remains the most popular figure among Republican base voters and the vast majority of party elected officials have avoided any direct criticism out of fear of drawing his ire.
Bush, who is constitutionally barred from serving as president again, is less constrained.