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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Will Trump avoid Bush’s one-term fate if he gets busy cutting spending?

Perhaps it’s fitting this week as the nation mourns and remembers the late President George H.W. Bush that numerous conservatives and other commentators have noted that Bush was only a one-term president and the sole Republican commander in chief in everyone’s lifetime to lose his reelection bid (Gerald Ford doesn’t really count here, does he?).

Yes, technically there are some alive who were very young when Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Delano Trump and FamilyRoosevelt in 1932 (the last pre-Ford Republican president to run for and fail to retain the office), but would they truly remember it?

Therefore, Bush is/was unique among the modern group of former presidents. The Democrats have their Jimmy Carter (the last Democrat incumbent to lose) and the GOP has/had its George H.W. Bush. Politically speaking, it’s a rare occasion when a sitting president loses at the ballot box. When such a surprise occurs, folks naturally wonder… what happened?

In H.W. Bush’s case most observers blame the breaking of his “Read my lips, no new taxes!” pledge for the career public servant’s ultimate downfall. Some conservatives were quick to highlight other Bush-era apostacies against limited government principles, but it’s safe to say Americans of all political stripes lost a great deal of faith in Bush when he so demonstrably went against his word.

Bush’s associates at the time remembered how he was concerned about rising federal deficits and assumed raising taxes -- to coincide with spending cuts -- would bring the federal red ink back into balance. Sly Democrats recognized if they could dupe Bush into breaking his word that they’d have a much better shot at beating him in 1992 -- and they were right. Of course, the promised spending cuts never materialized, the tax rate hikes slowed the economy and allowed the saxophone playing, skirt-chasing Big Bubba Bill Clinton to best the much better man (Bush).

Clinton waltzed into the White House, wife Hillary got the ball rolling on national healthcare and the world’s never been the same ever since. Similar to the opening of Pandora’s Box, all the evils of the political world were released due to Bush’s failure to hold steady on his no new taxes promise. Either that or maybe people back then were just really bad at reading lips.

At any rate, government is still spending with reckless abandon and little end in sight. Some smart conservatives are therefore suggesting Trump, with a Democrat House waiting to take over, would do well to commence hammering the fiscal responsibility angle with the voters.

Economist Stephen Moore wrote at The Washington Times, “Republicans need to regain the offensive on the fiscal issues. The GOP has somehow allowed big spending Democrats to get to the right of them on the issue of financial responsibility and balanced budgets. Polls show that Democrats are now more trusted on balancing the budget than Republicans. That’s like losing an arm wrestling contest with Nancy Pelosi…

“Almost nothing would do more to guarantee Donald Trump’s re-election than a crusade to weed out the hundreds of billions of dollars of fraud, inefficiency and duplication in Washington. No one is better to do it than a president who has been a successful businessman.

“A government that is going broke and yet still spends tens of thousands of dollars a year on pianos, hundreds of millions of dollars a year on public relations firms (to advertise what a great job they are doing spending money?), and billions of dollars a year sending Social Security checks out to dead people, isn’t serious about balancing the budget or spending taxpayer money with the same care they spend their own. And that’s the whole money problem in Washington in a nutshell.”

Well put. Ask an acquaintance for his or her views on government spending and you’ll invariably receive eyerolls of disgust, hands thrown in the air and a reply along the lines of “They’re all crooks and liars, every one of them. You can’t trust any of those idiots to keep their word. I can’t stand talking about politics.”

This may be the ONE issue area of American politics where most people from both sides of the ideological fence agree: government spends and wastes way too much. Liberals gripe about hundreds of billions for military spending every year when the Cold War is long over and the worldly threats are a fraction as dangerous as they were last century. Conservatives complain about excessive social welfare payments and entitlements, often coated with dire warnings of what would happen if Pelosi and her Democrat spendthrifts pushed through predictable big government disasters like Medicare-for-all and universal “free” college tuition.

Both liberals and conservatives also kvetch about bureaucracy, paperwork and red tape. Big and small businesses spend billions every year filing compliance forms and everyone knows how arduous it can be just to fill out individual tax returns. All of those electronic numbers and papers go somewhere and Uncle Sam pays his worker bees generous salaries to keep the government’s paperwork arteries unclogged.

Who keeps track of it all? Is there a single person -- or even a group of people -- who understands where it all goes? Unfortunately, most Americans don’t pay attention to the amounts automatically withdrawn from their paychecks… except at tax time. Does anyone ever stop to wonder how many of those dollars are basically tossed away or devoted to things they oppose?

Oddly enough, both sides are correct in this regard. In his article, Moore highlights several federal spending programs that, on the surface, appear to be pure waste. There have been numerous studies conducted to expose waste, fraud and abuse and practically every presidential candidate from both parties vows to eliminate it on their watch. Hardly anyone could credibly claim the expertise and capability to do so, but Moore is right -- a businessman like Trump would be at the top of the list to do it.

With the Bush funeral chewing up the precious time left on this Congress’s legislative calendar it’s highly unlikely the political class will agree on funding for certain federal obligations by the end of the year. Therefore, continuing resolutions are in order and the matters put off until January when the new Congress convenes. Nancy Pelosi will grasp the ceremonial speaker’s gavel and it’ll be a whole new ballgame in terms of outlays.

Thankfully the Democrats’ ascendance will provide Trump the perfect backdrop for a national talk on fiscal sanity. With annual federal deficits at or nearing $1 trillion and the cumulative national debt rapidly approaching $22 trillion, it’s well past time for a heart-to-heart conversation with Americans on spending. It’s something people want to hear about, too, which can’t be said for the vast majority of political issues.

The government’s running out of zeros to add to the mounting debt. Who’s going to pay it all back? Will Social Security and Medicare even be around when young and middle-aged folks reach retirement age? What about the national savings rate? The economy is humming, shouldn’t the government be out of debt?

Even liberals might pause to listen to Trump on deficit reduction. They’ll no doubt start whining about the need for a big tax hike, but at least the matter will be out in the open. Everyone wants the irresistible good news of government cleaning up it’s act. Trump may have just found his ticket to reelection in 2020. Will he listen?

George H.W. Bush didn’t appear to get it in his time, which is why he was only able to serve four years. Jay Cost wrote at National Review, “Bush had no … political winds at his back. The economy sank into a recession in 1990. It was a mild one, in historical perspective, but the recovery from it felt very slow, making Republican ‘trickle-down economics’ an easy target of Democratic ire. And the politics in Bush’s own party had grown untenable.

“The GOP coalition created in 1980 was built on tax cuts, military-spending increases, and cuts in domestic spending. The latter proved politically impossible, but the Republicans still cut taxes and increased military spending, yielding a massive budget deficit. This, in turn, divided the Reagan coalition by the 1990s: Conservative Republicans were still demanding spending cuts, while moderate Republicans and middle-of-the-road voters still opposed them.

“Between the recession and the politics of deficit reduction, Bush’s reelection was a tough prospect. The country at large was ready for a change, and Republicans were eager to reset their political coalition. If Bush had first been elected in, say, 1980, I think he would have been easily reelected four years later. But to be elected as a Republican in 1988 after eight years of GOP governance made for a very difficult challenge indeed.”

Clearly an H.W. Bush fan, Cost writes that the one-term president was actually one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century and fell victim to unfortunate circumstances in 1992 rather than his own inadequacies as a politician. This week a lot of Republicans probably look back on H.W.’s years and feel the same way, though it’s important to remember many of Bush’s own decisions led to his fatal unraveling due to the loss of his electoral coalition.

Bush road the coattails of Ronald Reagan, first to a two-term tenure as vice president and then to an all-but assured nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate in 1988. He faced an incredibly flawed and weak Democrat opponent that year; Michael Dukakis was an unapologetic progressive Massachusetts doofus who had little appeal outside of the most liberal enclaves in the country. Practically any Republican would’ve beaten Dukakis… just listening to the guy talk was enough to send voters rushing to the polls to vote for Bush.

Democrats were also reeling from having had their first choice, Senator Gary Hart, take himself out of the race (in mid-1987) because of his extra-marital dalliances aboard the appropriately named yacht, “Monkey Business.” Who knows, if it’d been Bill Clinton doing it instead of Hart, maybe he would’ve gotten away with it?

Further, Bush inherited much of Reagan’s success both on the policy and popularity front. Reagan spent much of his second term defending against the Iran-Contra scandal and battling a Democrat senate (and House) majority which disgustingly turned away Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Despite these troubles, The Gipper left office incredibly well-liked, warm feelings that easily transferred to Reagan’s loyal vice president when he ran.

Needless to say, Bush was the recipient of much goodwill resulting from the capitulation of the Soviet Union and the end to the Cold War. Reagan’s skillful manipulation of American foreign policy, (which was basically talking tough on communism, advocating for a sizeable military buildup and avoiding costly foreign wars) was well-received by voters. Americans chose a third Reagan term in 1988, not a first H.W. Bush one.

Bush lost his reelection bid because yes, Americans were ready for a change, but also because Bush deviated markedly from Reagan’s winning formula. The United States went from wise restraint and sparingly using its armed forces to tangling with two-bit dictators like Saddam Hussein who couldn’t win a skirmish with a proficient military much less a real war.

It's regrettable that otherwise worthy historians like Cost make it sound like Bush’s 1992 failure was inevitable -- because it wasn’t. First and foremost, Bush lost because he couldn’t keep his party united and it’s nobody’s fault but his. He was a fine man and universally well-regarded because of his inherent decency, stellar moral values and approachability to friend and political foe alike. But was he a good politician?

No need to answer that one. As would be expected, this week has brought many comparisons between H.W. Bush and the current occupant of the Oval Office. William Murchison wrote at The American Spectator, “There came a moment in our tumultuous time when, soured on feckless, foggy, self-interested politicians, the voters — roughly half of them anyway — decided it was time for a vision with flesh and teeth, namely, the vision of Donald Trump: no hand-written thank-you’s but lots and lots and lots of action. And rhetoric: nothing like they teach at Yale, or used to, but coarse and unsparing. Unsurprisingly, George H. W. Bush is reported to have voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton! Well…

De mortuis nil nisi bonum — of the dead say nothing but good — is the rule of thumb in the obituary trade. Believe me when I submit that George Herbert Walker Bush deserves, not in accordance with ancient maxims but rather on account of personal merit, the highest, most fervent praises.

“What history — whatever that may mean — will say about the deportment and records of the gentleman-in-politics and the ruffian-in-politics is more than we senior citizens can expect to find out. I will content myself with a guess: It is that we need both types to attempt different things in different ways at different times. Nor can we expect from either type the fulfillment of every human expectation and need. ‘O put not your trust in princes’ is the counsel of the Psalmist. I’ve never heard better.”

It’s true, both H.W.’s and Trump’s political styles are/were best suited for different sets of political conditions. It’s doubtful Bush’s “have half” nice guy image would thrive in today’s cutthroat post-Obama environment. Democrats would eat him alive, just as they did his son and every other GOP establishment politician.

Donald Trump would do well to remember George H.W. Bush’s example but stay true to himself and what got him elected president. Trump could make it all his own by pounding the fiscal responsibility angle ahead of the 2020 election -- and he’d likely avoid Bush’s one-term fate.

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