George W. Bush Library

From the Center

It’s been almost exactly fifteen years since George W. Bush concluded his presidency and immediately distanced himself from almost all overt political activity. After leaving office, Bush devoted himself to a post-presidential career as an amateur artist, whose paintings have drawn laudatory reviews. But aside from an occasional fundraiser for a mainstream conservative candidate and some non-controversial bipartisan endeavors, the nation’s 43rd chief executive has been largely content to stay out of the limelight.

But as Donald Trump moves ahead of Joe Biden in a growing number of public opinion polls, Bush’s low public profile may be about to change. When former Republican House member and frequent Trump antagonist Liz Cheney let it be known last week that she would consider a third party presidential candidacy next year, speculation immediately began about how aggressive a role her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, would play in her campaign. And very quickly, the conversation turned to whether Dad’s old boss would support her if she ran.

Much has been written about how traditional Republicans want to stop Trump. Their hopes currently rest with former U.N. Ambassador Nicki Haley, who has emerged as the most plausible alternative to Trump, even though she trails him by wide margins in polls of GOP primary voters. But while Haley has been an effective campaigner – especially in the Trump-less primary debates – her ascent underscores how little remains of the Republican Party that existed before the Trump presidency.

It has been more than five years since George H.W. Bush and John McCain passed away, and neither Republican stalwart maintained much relevance in the Trump era (although McCain’s dramatic vote against Trump’s Obamacare repeal was a signature moment for both men). Except for Mitt Romney, who has become increasingly marginalized in today’s GOP and is now retiring from office, Bush the younger is the only living Republican presidential nominee. Former House Speakers like Paul Ryan and John Boehner have little influence in current-day Washington, and former Senate leaders Bill Frist and Trent Lott are even quieter.

So it’s hard out there for the pre-Trump Republican establishment. Party loyalists who want to rebuild in an un-Trump fashion don’t have a lot of longtime leaders to whom they can turn. But Bush has been conspicuous in his absence from the political debate. Ever since his younger brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, was demolished by Trump in the early stages of the 2016 primary, former President Bush has said little about his GOP successor in the White House.

Trump’s domination of the modern-day Republican Party is based on his ability to combine support from two extremely different groups. His most ardent backers, the angry MAGA populists, represent a plurality of GOP voters. But Trump’s successes have also relied on many more traditional Romney-McCain-Bush country club, office park and Main Street Republicans whose aversion to left-leaning Democratic goals has convinced them to either overlook or minimize Trump’s excesses.

Haley is now challenging that primacy (along with the more confrontational but less plausible candidacy of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie). If Haley is unsuccessful, then Cheney might step into the fray in the fall. Both of them would be decided underdogs in a head-to-head against Trump, but both would be more competitive with the support of traditional conservatives. It’s logical to assume that the best way to attract Bush Republicans is with a Bush, especially one who used to be president.

Bush’s compassionate conservatism and interventionist globalism represent a vastly dissimilar brand of Republican orthodoxy than Trump’s immigrant-bashing and isolationism. It’s entirely possible that Trump has so remade the GOP in his image that Bush could no longer sway a determinative number of votes. But it’s more than likely that Bush still believes that growing threats from Russia, China and Iran can best be confronted with his and his father’s multilateral philosophy than by Trump’s erratic and ally-unnerving behavior. And he must know that there aren’t many recognizable leaders who can talk sense into the center-right voters who will decide the next election.

It’s entirely possible that an establishment former president supporting Haley could cost her grassroots support in today’s Republican Party, and that a viable Cheney candidacy could hurt Biden more than Trump. But the time when this type of risk-taking becomes necessary is not far off. No matter how much an elder statesman like Bush would like to leave the partisan wars in his past, at a certain point he must also consider his nation’s future.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo: George W. Bush Library