Remembering what’s at stake in 2016

Lost in the arguments about who is sane, and who has the right temperament for the presidency, is the practical impact of the election. People have wondered aloud: how can men of conscience like Paul Ryan endorse and support someone like Donald Trump? They ascribe a level of moral consciousness that is not deserved according to Ryan’s actions and plans. And they furthermore ignore the entire premise and goal of most of the elected GOP members: to slash taxes on the rich and gut the safety net.

It has been apparent for a long time now that this is what Paul Ryan intends to do: it was clear in 2012 when he was picked as Romney’s vice president. The GOP will in all likelihood control the house regardless of the presidential outcome due to the extreme gerrymandering done at the state level since the 2010 census and district redrawing, and there is a desperate fight for control of the Senate right now, where the tie-breaking vote could be the vice president’s (a role which Cheney played several times). If Trump wins the presidency, it’s likely that Republicans will also control the Senate, and at least have the tie-breaking vote.

What is Paul Ryan’s plan in the event of a Trump presidency and Republican control of the Congress? Here is the lede of a Politico story:

If Donald Trump is elected president and Republicans hold onto Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan is bluntly promising to ram a partisan agenda through Capitol Hill next year, with Obamacare repeal and trillion-dollar tax cuts likely at the top of the list. And Democrats would be utterly defenseless to stop them.

He would do this through the use of budget reconciliation: this is what was used to pass the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000s, and it was used to finally get Obamacare passed (to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills, the latter which required a super-majority to pass). There would be no president to veto: in fact, Paul Ryan is counting on Donald Trump’s support to pass the plan, which explains Ryan’s quiet endorsement despite personal objections to Trump’s style, instability and blatant racism.

Apparently, Americans want Congress to “get things done” as opposed to gridlock, while awarding the party causing the gridlock with a massive and radical legislative victory. They will award this to Republicans through a series of protest votes for third-party candidates and a core failure to understand the actual stakes of the election. They are content with either saying “single-payer or nothing” while ignoring the 20 million + who have receive health insurance under Obamacare, and ready to punish a center-left agenda they see as corrupt by giving massive tax cuts for the wealthy (ignoring that the center-left Obama successfully drove up taxes for the wealthy).

Here is a line in the article that summarizes what is at stake:

By the end of the decade, the richest 1 percent would have accumulated 99.6 percent of the benefits of the House GOP plan, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore also covered Ryan’s agenda, in an article titled “Paul Ryan Is Planning a Revolution, and It Starts in January”

[T]he illusion that the filibuster would give Senate Democrats a veto over anything egregious, the Republicans-in-disarray meme has lulled a lot of Democrats, and the media, into a drowsy inability to understand how close we are to a right-wing legislative revolution if Donald Trump becomes president and Republicans hang on to Congress.

This was the plan in 2012 as well if Romney were to win. People claimed nothing much would change back then, or that it wouldn’t be much of a disaster. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. They ascribe a fundamentally undeserved level of moderateness in policy substance to politicians based on speaking style and handsome looks alone.

I am unsure of the Clinton strategy: they want to win over independents and moderate Republicans by appealing to their sense of patriotism and the fact that Trump is clearly unstable and bigoted. But the campaign has done precious little to demonstrate the radical nature of the GOP plan that would go into effect with high likelihood in the event of a Trump presidency.

And I am unsure of the voters “unhappy” with the two candidates and what they will ultimately due in roughly a month’s time. There are real stakes to the results of the election; voting for someone you don’t personally respect or like seems to be a small price to pay for saving the hard fought gains of the last 8 years and salvaging any hope of withstanding a radical set back to the progressive agenda for years to come.

Ed Kilgore concludes:

[I]t should be a warning to Democrats as well, and something that with imagination and persistence they can convey to those critical progressives who are meh about voting for Hillary Clinton and don’t think the identity of the president much matters. Even if you think Clinton is a centrist sellout or a Wall Street puppet, she’s not going to sign legislation throwing tens of millions of people out of their health coverage, abolishing inheritance taxes and giving top earners still more tax benefits, shredding the safety net, killing Planned Parenthood funding, and so on through Ryan’s whole abominable list of reactionary delights. If Democrats think a scenario so complicated that it’s lulled the press to sleep cannot be explained to regular voters, maybe they should break out the hand puppets. There is no more urgent and galvanizing message available to them.”

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Before the first debate

I want to say that, on the eve of the first presidential debate, there’s a lot at stake.

Briefly, a few words on what is not at stake. Regardless of who wins, we’ve already lost a lot. We have a media that appears to favor entertainment and false equivalence at the cost of truth, and at the cost of normalizing truly radical and unqualified figures. We have a deeply divided populace, where possibly a majority of the population endorses the banning of Muslims from entering the country while only 38% of the country personally knows a Muslim. 59% of Republican primary voters think the President of the last 7.5 years is a Muslim. And a major party candidate has already said that if he loses, it will be due to widespread voter fraud, diminishing confidence in our already fragile system.

Meanwhile liberals proudly claim that they don’t know any Trump supporters, as if being in a bubble were a badge of honor. We don’t talk to each other. We separate increasingly on class, education and religion while ignoring facts that fly against our own narratives.  We are in deep shit, regardless of where this debate and this election ultimately go. That’s what we have already lost.

Then what’s at stake in the debate and in the remainder of the campaign? Alot. We could salvage some decency in our discourse and in our media coverage, and importantly, we could salvage the direction of the country.

It’s common to criticize the media’s role in enabling Trump, and to call out Trump’s blatant lies (though not common enough), but we’ve done precious little to actually understand how he would govern, which should be a central question right now. I am disheartened by those who say the constitution is “robust” and that the president will not be able to do much, and so we shouldn’t worry. These are the people who often argue things will be “OK.” I don’t know what OK means, really. We won’t cease to exist, probably (more on that later). But a lot of people might suffer, and the direction of the country would be drastically altered (for the worse). Why should the threshold for panic and alarm about the election be existence itself being threatened?

There was the news about Trump’s campaign possibly promising or offering a Supreme Court nomination to Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who funded the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. The lawyer in the Gawker case representing Hulk Hogan has since gone on to threaten action against New York Magazine for exposing dirt on Roger Ailes’ years of sexual harassment as head of Fox News. And there’s Donald Trump’s own litigious nature (including barring the Washington Post from press conferences). Does that not meet the threshold for panic and alarm? At what point do we recognize that the constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is (and it says things often at a considerable lag), and that claims of its robustness mean nothing if we do not fight clear attacks on it standing up?

The debate, then, can shed light on how Trump would actually govern. Evan Osnos wrote a detailed look at how a Trump administration might look like. Among other things, he notes that the research shows that candidates achieved around 70% of their campaign promises. There is also that he has the power to name some four thousand appointees in all parts of the government.  Here are some other highlights.

On Day One:

Trump aides are organizing what one Republican close to the campaign calls the First Day Project. “Trump spends several hours signing papers—and erases the Obama Presidency,” he said. Stephen Moore, an official campaign adviser who is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, explained, “We want to identify maybe twenty-five executive orders that Trump could sign literally the first day in office.”

On Judicial and Congressional Checks:

[T]he founders gave Congress the power to make laws, and the Supreme Court the final word on the Constitution [. . .] but during the Cold War the prospect of sudden nuclear attack further consolidated authority in the White House. “These checks are not gone completely, but they’re much weaker than I think most people assume,” Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said. “Congress has delegated a great deal of power to the President, Presidents have claimed power under the Constitution, and Congress has acquiesced.” The courts, Posner added, are slow. “If you have a President who is moving very quickly, the judiciary can’t do much. A recent example of this would be the war on terror. The judiciary put constraints on President Bush—but it took a very long time.”

There was that little old warrantless surveillance program by George W. Bush that lasted until 2015. A very robust program, it seemed.

We might also want to be a little worried about our existence. Evan Osnos also discusses just how easy it would be for a president to potentially authorize a nuclear attack (Nixon once faked it, to near disastrous results).

A year and a half ago, people didn’t think Trump could win the Republican primary. They thought it was crazy. Now it has come to pass. Now people think it’s crazy that Trump could win the presidency, and that he could do something as radical as appoint Peter Thiel to the Supreme Court, or do the things he has actually said he would do. We think these things are so crazy they aren’t worth giving another thought. Things have a habit of happening though.

So this is all at stake at the debate. As important as what happens at the debate, is what happens after. Does the media immediately shift into body language territory (who was calm? Shrill? “Presidential”?) and away from factual substance?

Tony Schwartz, the repentant ghostwriter of Art of the Deal, said the following in an interview with the New York Times on what he thinks should happen, and what Hillary Clinton ought to do:

“I’d be very calm, direct, and unflappable, but relentless, I mean relentless, over 90 minutes, in calling out every time a lie came out of his mouth [. . .] to demonstrate the thinness of his knowledge, his inability to answer any question beyond a sentence or two without repeating himself.”

“What I would hope is that [Hillary Clinton] doesn’t go the same route she did with Matt Lauer when he started coming at her relentlessly, which was to revert to her knowledge, to revert to her ability to produce a hundred facts in a short period of time, [. . .] Because this debate is going to turn not a bit on the issues. It’s going to turn on emotion, it’s going to turn on which candidate makes all of us feel safer and which candidate makes us feel less safe. And the one who wins that contest wins the debate — and probably wins the election.”

 


Coalition Building, Before Election Day

My previous criticism of those deciding to absolve themselves of responsibility by opting for a third party (at least in competitive states) has within it the underlying hypothesis about how presidential (and most Congressional) politics work in the United States.

In countries like the United Kingdom, a “third” or minor party can dominate in certain locations, like the Scottish National Party in Scotland. That happens to work, because after the election, if a single party in parliament does not have an outright majority, the elected MPs from different parties can work to form a coalition to get to a majority, and they decide on a prime minister to represent this coalition, usually selected from the dominant party in the coalition. Think of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the 2010 election (although this happened to be a disastrous choice for Lib Dems). Crucially, the Scottish voter doesn’t need to concern himself with throwing his vote away, although he is certainly aware his elected representative will join a coalition (possibly for getting some substantive policy in return).

In the United States, coalitions are built before election day, with the understanding that the elected will govern in such a way as to represent the voter groups involved in that process, or they will be pressured to do so over the course of their term. The process of electing a president is distinct from selecting Senators or House representatives. It’s possible that a third party (or independents, as it has happened more often) wins a particular local election. But in the first place, no Democrat or Republican is particularly bound to vote a particular way. And the centrist to leftist independent members of Congress tend to ‘caucus’ with Democrats so that they have some influence in the processes that develop policy.

My thinking, then, is that we have these supremely long campaign seasons because the process is about first building support among the base (for Democrats, a center-left base, for Republicans, an increasingly far-right base), and then building some support outside of the base once the primary season is over in order to win the election. It’s a process of building coalitions analogous to MPs from different parties joining together to get a majority.

And then the election will decide who is president, whether they have 51% of the vote or a plurality of the vote (e.g. Bill Clinton with 43% in 1992). Voting for a third party, then, is nice in that it lets you say, “I don’t like either major candidate, they suck,” but it seems less clear what it actually does: no one gets points for coming in 2nd or 3rd. The most plausible argument seems to be if you really are a Libertarian, and you want the Libertarian party to get above the 5% threshold to get some public financing in the next election (and automatic ballot access in all 50 states), and they happen to be close to that threshold this election. But this means you are less interested in the immediate outcome that will impact the next 4, or 8, or 12 years.

And how many of the people who are against Clinton and Trump are actually Libertarian? The Republican party already wants to gut the safety net, Medicaid and Medicare: the Libertarian party follows this path while also cutting defense, which I guess is kind of honest according to its own internal logic. But do people really want all income taxes replaced by consumption taxes (this is highly regressive)?

And with the Green Party, are they worthy of the attention they clamor for? Fighting for a leftist agenda is great, but lazy thinking is decidedly not fine.

An interviewer asked Jill Stein about the possibility of playing the role of spoiler like Nader in Florida in 2000, and helping Trump win in the process. Her response:

What we know from history, and what we know from the current situation, we are seeing a rise in right-wing extremism, not just in the United States, and it’s not just Donald Trump, it’s also throughout countries in Europe [. . .] The answer to neofascism is stopping neoliberalism. Putting another Clinton in the White House will fan the flames of this right-wing extremism. We have known that for a long time ever since Nazi Germany. We are going to stand up to Donald Trump and to stand up to Hillary Clinton!

To be fair, I was never going to be convinced of her reasoning, regardless of her response, although I acknowledge anyone’s right to run for office (and anyone’s right to vote for them). But this answer is garbage and nonsensical. If you’re running as a third-party in a post-2000 election world, you should have a better response than this. You should have thought about this.

Jonathan Chait responds brutally (and correctly):

In fact, the one time in American history a Clinton held the White House, it did not lead to fascism. True, it did lead to a Republican administration, but it wouldn’t have if it weren’t for, among many factors, a Green Party candidate who siphoned off enough votes in Florida to tilt the outcome.

[. . .]

This, however, is also a strange conclusion to draw. The crisis in Weimar Germany had many causes, but one of them was the Communist Party’s insistence on destroying the Social Democrats. Because the Communists would not support any center-left government coalition, it was impossible to form a parliamentary majority without the Nazis. So whatever lessons about left-wing political strategy we should draw from the Nazi era, “withhold votes from the mainstream party that is the only viable alternative to the far right” is definitely not one of them.

What’s most fascinating is that Stein does not try to downplay the danger of a Trump presidency. Instead, she likens it to fascism and Nazism (a comparison that I actually think, for all of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, goes too far). And yet, proceeding from her premise that Clintonism will lead to fascism, she concludes that she must “stand up to” both Donald Trump and the only candidate who can prevent Donald Trump from winning the presidency, in equal measure. “Neoliberalism” — the left-wing term of abuse for liberalism — leads to fascism, so we might as well skip the neoliberalism step and go straight to the fascism.

The assertion is that the Democratic party is fundamentally corrupt, and is no better than the Republican party, basically. This despite that the way our elections work, someone can win a presidency with a plurality of the vote: a least-preferred candidate (Trump) can win by enough people voting for their most-preferred candidate (Stein) rather than the second-least preferred candidate (Clinton) who is the only viable opposition. This is the reality of our election system, regardless of our internal moral quandary about picking. And the point is, there is no regrouping after the election. The regrouping is going on now. Whether people vote in a way that lets them sleep at night or not, the outcome is what matters.

Bernie Sanders mounted a challenge against Clinton from within the Democratic party, and he pushed the conversation towards his end, and got changes in the platform. It’s not clear he would have done this had he skipped the Democratic primary process altogether and joined the Green Party. The Democratic Party is probably better for it, though a minority of his supporters have not yet come to the same conclusions he has.

The Libertarian party would also not likely withstand scrutiny, although they have actual governing experience in diverse settings, so perhaps there’s less concern there. William Weld, the vice presidential nominee for the party, was a moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts. It seems, though, that actual libertarian and conservative commentators don’t like his views on how to govern.

On the supreme court:

JOHNSON: Really, there are going to be no litmus test. You’re going to appoint good people, and you’re going appoint people that look at the Constitution of original intent.

WELD: Well, I don’t think you have to panic and say it has to be a way lefty or way righty. Steve Breyer has been a good justice. He was appointed by Democrats.

GILLESPIE: A Massachusetts guy, right?

WELD: A Massachusetts guy. Merrick Garland, I think, would have been a very good pick, and he’s nominated by Obama.

Weld’s answer is a reasonable answer; but it’s not an answer that can satisfy the Libertarian or conservative die-hards, and it seems his running mate doesn’t agree either.

Leon Wolf writes:

Johnson’s answer is pretty good. Weld’s is awful, and if Johnson disagrees with him he should tell him to shut up about it. Breyer has been a “good justice” in the sense that he hasn’t been openly corrupt and he’s reasonably intelligent, but he’s also a doctrinaire liberal who has stood blithely by and endorsed the massive expansion of the Federal government and the administrative state in particular. His jurisprudence shows no respect for any even theoretical limit of the commerce clause. His philosophy isn’t conservative, and it sure as hell isn’t Libertarian. What is Weld even driving at? This country doesn’t need two Democrat parties.

[. . .]

Leave it to the Libertarians. They have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remove their party from the fringes and they blow it by putting this buffoon Weld on the ticket.

It’s telling that Wolf thinks being more libertarian and more idealogical would be the tactic that would remove the party from the fringes. That seems counter-intuitive to me.

It seems that the third parties want the attention but maybe not the scrutiny that comes with it: maybe we’ll find out that they’re as human and impure as the rest of us.


Rethinking Trump

I wrote just a few days ago that Trump was a lot like the rest of the Republican party, and more moderate if anything on certain policy issues, and that we should be cognizant of this rather than solely emphasize his choice of rhetoric. I said this because I worried this focus on rhetoric would make his party competitors seem less crazy when they held equally destructive policy beliefs.

However, over the last few days, my thinking has changed based on recent events. The other presidential candidates in his party, like other leaders in the party from the past, are largely responsible for the terrible turn of events. By claiming repeatedly that their country was being taken in apocalyptic terms; by portraying every election as a matter of spiritual life or death; by claiming Obama was purposefully trying to ruin the country; and by using racism subtly and not so subtly, they have created this current monster and his followers. But at this point, the only candidate who has advocated for violence is Trump, and that has me rethinking my classification of him as the least bad option from the party.

Policy choices are meaningful, and they can ultimately impact real lives in small and large ways. But someone who incites and advocates violence and who aspires to hold the highest office in the country, leading the executive branch and all its limbs, would be decidedly destructive and dangerous in ways I have trouble thinking about. So I was wrong about Trump: rhetoric does matter.

I guess this started at a Trump rally when John McGraw, a 78 year-old man, punched a protester as he was being escorted out. The protester was held back and wrestled to the ground by police officers. Afterwards, when video came to light, McGraw was arrested. In an interview, McGraw stated:

Number one, we don’t know if he’s ISIS. We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American, cussing me… If he wants it laid out, I laid it out. [. . .] Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.

I hesitate to associate a single man with Trump. But throughout the campaign, Trump has expressed support for exactly this kind of thing:

“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?” Trump said, drawing cheers and laughter. “Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise. They won’t be so much, because the courts agree with us too — what’s going on in this country.”

I thought it was a dumb thing, more talk to whip up support among his followers, but nothing to be taken very seriously. Just Trump being Trump.  I was wrong.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Trump was asked whether he would pay McGraw’s legal fees, as he once offered to do for supporters who rough up protesters.

“I’ve actually instructed my people to look into it, yes,” Trump responded.

There’s really nothing more to say. What I worry about is the other Republicans. They have stated that they don’t like what’s being done, but that they would support the nominee, whoever he is. They have to change their minds fast if they care even the slightest about, I don’t know, democracy and civic discourse. But maybe that’s not likely. Josh Barro writes about Rubio powerfully:

[Republicans] have spent seven years running around the country, accusing the president of being a fifth columnist hell bent on destroying our country. If Obama’s America were as bad as people like Rubio say it is, the civil unrest fomented by Trump would be justified.

Now the Republicans who fed this narrative are watching in apparent horror as they see voters have taken them all too seriously.

Rubio says the idea of supporting Trump as the nominee is “getting harder every day.” [. . .] “I think we all need to take a step back and ask whether we’re contributing to this,” Rubio said Saturday about the unrest. He should start with himself.


Some writing about Trump on the internet

Last summer, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy to a bunch of paid extras in a mall food court and subsequently rose to the top of the polls, I think I made a mistake many others made. I thought that this was just another one of those candidacies, not unlike that of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann in 2012. In other words, 2016 would just be a repeat of 2012. At the time, my chief worry was not that Trump would win his party’s nomination, but that Trump would make the other candidates (and their ideas) on the debate stage seem less crazy than they actually were.

Why was I wrong? I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying, or who he was appealing to. And he was appealing to the struggling working and poor whites who blame globalization and immigration for much of the nation’s woes and who feel that neither party has represented their interests. Late last year, a report came out that said poorly educated middle-aged whites were the only demographic in America that had experienced life expectancy declines. And a recent interview of Theda Skocpol, political scientist at Harvard, demonstrated to me that what most Republican voters care about (immigration) is not what the large Republican donors and elder statesmen care about (deregulation and tax cuts for the rich). The latter has pandered to the former in primary after primary, but it seems these voters are finally realizing that the establishment doesn’t actually care. Hence, Donald Trump.

Fast forward to today, with roughly half the primaries completed. Trump remains at the top of the national polls, and he leads in delegates. Meanwhile, the media in recent weeks has remained focused on his celebrity, televising every victory speech or rally and subsequently condemning him. And so, I was completely wrong about Trump’s chances for success in the primaries, but I wasn’t wrong about the media focusing on words (and how they are delivered) rather than on more substantive issues, and in the process making others on the stage (and their ideas) look more palatable. On tax policy, Trump, Cruz (the “crazy” pick), Rubio (the “establishment” pick) and Kasich (the “moderate” pick) all propose large tax cuts that will primarily help the wealthy and create huge deficits that could only be paid by cutting the safety net drastically. On immigration, despite all the focus on Trump, all have adopted similarly harsh stances. On trade policy, Trump is the same as Romney in 2012, where he lambasted Obama for not going hard at China for currency manipulation. Trump also favors more protectionist policies, which is at odds with big business and the Republican establishment (and agrees with some of Bernie Sanders’s own rhetoric). By fighting a battle on language instead of a battle on ideas, the media essentially gives up on the latter.

I consider all of the major Republican candidates to be basically terrible and unacceptable: Ohio Governor John Kasich is considered the moderate in the race because he will not say mean things in debates. Rubio is considered the most electable because he’s young, speaks positively and can be manipulated by the big donors and establishment forces in the party. And then there’s Cruz: I have been of the view that Cruz would be the worst possibility of all because he’s an extremely skilled and smart politician, and worse, a real believer in his causes. He has demonstrated an ideological purity that would be more damaging than any kind of political incorrectness. He single-handedly shut down the government over an attempt to repeal Obamacare. . .while Obama was still in office and had veto power. The pointlessness of that crusade was not lost on his own colleagues.

Since the early 1980s, the Republican party, driven by rich donors with a specific agenda, has gone further and further right. The “sensible” Republicans, who used racism and immigration issues subtly (and not so subtly) for years to drive their victories, now wonder how the party could be so broken in this election.

 


41: What does a former president owe?

A month or two ago, Jon Meacham released his biography of George HW Bush (41). Accompanying that book was a fascinating New York Times article, which detailed some of the most newsworthy aspects of the biography. The most prominent bit was 41’s criticism of George W. Bush’s (43) cabinet, targeting Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld in particular. Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Cheney had built “his own empire” and asserted too much “hard-line” influence within George W. Bush’s White House in pushing for the use of force around the world. Mr. Rumsfeld, the elder Mr. Bush said, was an “arrogant fellow” who could not see how others thought and “served the president badly.”

I got angry when I read the article. But not because I disagreed with the assessment. Anyone who was paying attention during the lead-up to the Iraq War and its aftermath was probably aware of these things. No, 41 is spot-on in his criticism, even as he shies away from directly criticizing his son. I got angry because of this:

The younger Mr. Bush was also shown a transcript of his father’s remarks. “He certainly never expressed that opinion to me, either during the presidency or after,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “I valued Dick’s advice, but he was one of a number of my advisers I consulted, depending on the issue.”

His father, he added, “would never say to me: ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that. And in any event, I disagree with his characterization of what was going on. I made the decisions. This was my philosophy.”

As for his “hot rhetoric,” the younger Mr. Bush said: “It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people — obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it.”

Quote: “He never mentioned it.

These criticisms are largely worthless now. They are largely part of a battle for history and how it judges the men who served in office. 41 has decided it’s time to let his true feelings be known about people who he felt served the country badly, knowing the level of damage done to the country in the aftermath of the Iraq War. And his true feelings might have actually meant something in 2002, or 2003, or even in the few years after while the targets of his criticism were still in positions of power. Perhaps it’s with an eye for history that 41 “has seen his reputation rise again with the passage of time” and has now decided to speak up more bluntly.

I can’t help but feel angry that these criticisms were not at least spoken directly to his son, who would conceivably be open to getting advice from his father, a former president with significant foreign policy expertise as president, vice president and CIA director. But he never tried. “He never mentioned it.” It was his son’s administration, in the end, and 41 was going to leave it at that. Still, the thought keeps coming back to me: there are issues of family, and I can understand publicly supporting your son in his presidency. But as a former president, and someone who had offered up his life to his country in World War II, it’s difficult to fathom that 41 would not have even broached the topic privately.

I worry about “Meacham’s largely admiring biography,” in this context and in others, as I fear it will appreciate public service in a cloud of nostalgia without holding it fully accountable. Another recent article details 41’s reactions to the current battle for the Republican presidential nomination:

No one, it seems, is more perplexed than the family patriarch by the race, and by what the Republican Party has become in its embrace of anti-establishment outsiders, especially the sometimes rude Mr. Trump.

Yet his son George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent he himself (both as presidential candidate and vice president to Ronald Reagan), benefited from tactics that are now being used openly by the current crop of anti-establishment candidates. Paul Krugman writes in a recent column that “this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified at the seemingly sudden turn of events [. . .] [I]n the U.S. it’s the cynicism of Republicans who summoned up prejudice to support their electoral prospects.”

Quoting the NYT article: 

the elder Mr. Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr. Trump had belittled Sen. John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.

“I can’t understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously,” said Mr. Bush

Was it not his own son who stood by silently as outside groups assaulted John Kerry’s record as a war hero in his 2004 re-election campaign? And it was George W. Bush and his advisor Karl Rove who had mastered the tactic of race-baiting (or letting others do the race-baiting for you) in the nomination battle against John McCain in 2000. There appears to be no direct proof of their involvement, but in South Carolina there was an orchestrated campaign to tell primary voters that John McCain had fathered a black baby out of wedlock. 

There are fewer differences between Trump and the other Republican candidates than one might expect based on the elder Bush’s outrage. His son Jeb, after all, is proposing massive tax cuts (which as a corollary would require massive cuts to the safety net), just like Trump’s tax plan. The party isn’t what it used to be, but that’s thanks to George W. Bush and the Republicans that came before him. George HW Bush is not so innocent in this regard either.
Sources:

PETER BAKER. New York Times, Nov. 4, 2015, “Elder Bush Says His Son Was Served Badly by Aides.”

JONATHAN MARTIN and MATT FLEGENHEIMER. New York Times, Oct. 24, 2015, “Bush at 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race.”

PAUL KRUGMAN. New York Times, Dec. 11, 2015, “Empowering the Ugliness.”