When George H.W. Bush died, news reports flashed images of the young man as a World War II war hero, followed by those of the Berlin Wall being torn down. If only the reel had stopped there. Other images included the bombing of Iraq after that nation’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
From now on, the United States ought to let Kuwaitis defend Kuwait. That U.S.-led war cost 149 American lives with 1,143 total casualties. On the Iraqi side, it is estimated that 100,000 Iraqis died with 300,000 wounded. Stateside, the war set into motion the events that would result in the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Bush’s brief presidency matters tremendously. The late 1980s and early ‘90s is where the current blue state-red state divide began. From 1968 to 1988, GOP presidential candidates averaged 53 percent of the vote to 43 percent for the Democrats. From 1992 to 2012, a complete reversal: 49 percent Democratic to 43 percent Republican. In 1988, Bush won California, Illinois and New Jersey, three states the GOP has never won again. In 2018, Donald Trump did win back Florida, Pennslyvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, but the days of Nixon-Reagan landslides are over.
What went wrong? By supporting free trade, Bush alienated the Reagan Democrats in the Midwest. By increasing legal immigration and doing nothing about illegal immigration, Bush lost California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois for the GOP. (We don’t throw stones. Reagan and Bush 43 did nothing about this problem, either. Still Bush’s actions were akin to a man pouring kerosene on a fire already out of control.) Finally, there was the broken pledge on taxes, the sour aftermath of the war and the signing of a civil rights bill that conservatives immediately denounced as quota legislation.
For his troubles on the latter issue, Bush faced a primary challenge from Patrick J. Buchanan. After the commentator gained 37 percent of the vote in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, H. Ross Perot jumped into the race. Those two candidacies set off a chain reaction with results few could foresee. The coming years would see similar populist runs within the GOP by Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. None of them went anywhere, and, with the presidency of George W. Bush, the free trade-mass immigration-wars for democracy faction seemed to have won a decisive victory. But Bush 43’s own war in Iraq turned out badly and even though it took eight years, the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump picked up the pieces.
Bush 41 didn’t like it. According to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, Bush announced his intention to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. With that get-together, America’s three royal families—the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons—all came together to beat back the threat of the orange-haired menace from Queens County. Bush’s official residence was in Maine. That year, Maine was a tossup state. Bush didn’t want Trump to win Maine and with it, the White House. And so he voted for the wife of the man who defeated him in 1992.
Joseph Scotchie is a North Carolina native and a New York journalist. He is the author, among other works, of Revolt from the Heartland, The Paleoconservatives, Writing on the Southern Front, The Vision of Richard Weaver, A Gallery of Ashevillians, Thomas Wolfe Revisited, and Street Corner Conservative: Patrick J. Buchanan and His Times.