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George H.W. Bush: A Great President or Destroyer of the GOP?

George H.W. Bush was a decent man who simply couldn’t get out of his own way when it came to the presidency. He was not a Reaganite and instead favored moderate, technocratic solutions to some of America’s most vexing problems. This did not appeal to voters. 

President George H.W. Bush at his Oval Office desk
President George H.W. Bush at his Oval Office desk

George H.W. Bush was one of the most qualified and experienced men to have run for president in the modern era. A war hero who barely avoided capture by the Japanese after his fighter plane was shot down over the Pacific during the Second World War, Bush was a high-achieving Yale graduate (who famously took the Yale baseball team to the national championship before joining the Navy). 

When he returned home from war, Bush moved down to the wilds of Texas and started a lucrative oil venture there. He used that venture to secure his position in American politics, ultimately rising to several notable position in US government—CIA director, then ambassador to China, then the vice-presidency under Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan’s tenure as president ended, Bush ran for president and won. His presidency coincided with one of the greatest inflection points in American history. The Cold War was ending, and Bush used his experience to shape the post-Cold War order (what Charles Krauthammer would soon dub as America’s “unipolar moment”). 

Bush led the country in its most successful war since the Second World War, Desert Storm. The forty-first president was also the patriarch of a very successful family. His son, George W. Bush, would go on to be a two-term (though controversial) president in his own right. 

Despite this excellent CV and his apparent successes as president, Bush ’41 was only a one-term president. He lost what should have been a slam-dunk reelection in 1992. It will continue to be a question that most historians looking back at that time period have: how is it that George H.W. Bush, with such apparent success, lost to an upstart, failed Democratic governor from Arkansas in 1992? 

The devil, as always, is in the details. 

Bush was Out of His Element with Reagan

Bush ’41 was a political moderate from an elite northeast family with a technocratic bearing. He had a tendency to turn people off because of this. When he first ran for president in 1980, Bush ran hard against the Reagan Revolution—infamously describing Reagan’s fascination with Supply Side economic (what became known as “Reaganomics”) as “Voodoo Economics”. 

It was only Reagan’s magnanimity as the ultimate victor over Bush, as well as Reagan’s understandable need to keep the dividing Republican Party together going into the General Election of that year, that gave George H.W. Bush a renewed lease on political life. Reagan selected Bush as his running mate. 

After Reagan’s landslide victory, the two former rivals developed a healthy working relationship. Some might even describe it as a friendship. However, whatever personal affinity the two men had for each other did not translate into the political realm once George H.W. Bush became president. 

The first action Bush took as president was to remove most Reagan political appointees. One former Reagan adviser who was unceremoniously fired from his White House perch referred to it as a “purge”. Another former Reagan era adviser joked to me that it was Bush’s (and Brent Scowcroft’s) “Night of the Long Knives.” 

As we’ve learned during the Trump Administration, “personnel is policy.” By removing the people from the government who were most ideologically aligned with Reagan, George H.W. Bush was signaling the break from the Reagan Revolution. In fact, Bush was likely the man who ended the Reagan Revolution. 

Still, Bush enjoyed many successes as a result of his experience and intellect. 

Bush Wasn’t His Own Man

Interestingly, though, some of his greatest successes were not of his own making. And had Bush been unencumbered by the decisions of his predecessor or by the preferences of key partners, such as Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he might not have had the level of success that he ultimately did as president.

George H.W. Bush was a former CIA director. He had his hands deeply enmeshed within the US intelligence community long after he left that job. Yet, Bush was committed to détente—the peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union—because neither he nor his pals in the intel community could envision a world without the Soviet Union as a foil. 

Only Reagan and his acolytes believed that the Soviet Union was, as Reagan once told Dr. Robert Wood of the Naval War College in a 1982 White House briefing, “a Mickey Mouse operation” that would be gone “by my second term in office.” 

While managing the end of the Cold War, it was George H.W. Bush who urged many Eastern European nations—notably Ukraine—to remain within the failing Soviet Union to maintain stability. Many today look back upon the failure to keep some semblance of the Soviet Union together as a direct cause of the current Russo-Ukraine War

In fact, the real problem was not Ukrainian independence or the loss of the Soviet Union as a unifying entity in Eastern Europe. The problem was President Bill Clinton’s insistence in 1994 that Ukraine give up its nuclear weapons stockpile that the Soviet Red Army left behind there and the subsequent NATO expansion that occurred. 

Details, details.

Getting Saddam Wrong

Even Bush’s decisive military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces in Desert Storm was not as great as it seemed. 

First, it destabilized the Middle East and committed the United States to remaining directly engaged in that dangerous part of the world far more than it should have been. Second, as my colleague, the late Angelo Codevilla, assessed in the aftermath of Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush never asked himself critical strategic questions about the implications of his decision to go to war with Saddam Hussein. Bush infamously told audiences that he lacked that whole “vision thing”. It showed in Desert Storm. 

Bush only went after Saddam because Margaret Thatcher performed a “backbone transplant” on the forty-first president. Bush’s initial inclination with Saddam was to ignore whatever he was doing against Kuwait because, ultimately, Kuwait didn’t matter to the Americans. 

After his call with Thatcher, though, Bush wanted Saddam’s blood. 

Of course, Bush never inquired as to why he wanted Saddam’s blood and what the costs of that operation would be. Instead, Bush went for a third option that didn’t exist: defeat the Iraqi military tactically and then leave. In fact, there were only two strategic choices: topple Saddam’s regime in 1991 and spend a decade rebuilding Iraq or appease his rise. 

Although dubbed as a third way, Bush’s solution to Desert Storm was effectively appeasement. Had Bush been more decisive either in the way of toppling Saddam or appeasing him, the forty-first president might have not only made the world better, but he might have also secured reelection. 

No Country for an Old Man

As for Bush’s reelection. He lost to Bill Clinton, a failed, younger, smooth-talking governor from Arkansas. During Bush’s presidency, the economy had slowed down, and many Americans were hurting. Bush didn’t seem interested in remedying the suffering of millions of Americans who were made unemployed whereas Clinton spoke often and frequently about feeling their pain. 

Since Bush was not a Reaganite at heart, he allowed for a modest tax increase after he had vowed to Republican voters in his 1988 presidential run that there’d be no new taxes. As the economy was in freefall by the time he ran for reelection, the American people had had enough. Bush’s economic plan was strikingly similar to Bill Clinton’s. 

Had he won reelection, it is likely that the same economic growth the country enjoyed during Clinton’s presidency would have been experienced by the country under a second Bush term. 

Because Bush lost, though, the Democrats were able to completely change the makeup of the US government. Critical foreign policy decisions were made by Clinton that might not have been made by George H.W. Bush. Those Clinton decisions continue to haunt the United States today. 

George H.W. Bush was a decent man who simply couldn’t get out of his own way when it came to the presidency. He was not a Reaganite and instead favored moderate, technocratic solutions to some of America’s most vexing problems. This did not appeal to voters. 

What’s more, his stunning lack of vision in foreign affairs meant that he missed some critical opportunities, such as the degree to which the Soviet Union was collapsing; the failure to understand Saddam Hussein’s objectives in the Middle East and to make an actual strategy for dealing with that threat. And let’s not even mention Bush’s horrific stance on the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Ultimately, the American people fundamentally recognized that George H.W. Bush was not a great president. This is why they went with a failed governor from Arkansas rather than giving Bush another term.

A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Written By

Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who recently became a writer for Weichert is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as a contributing editor at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (March 28), and Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.