The Republican Party seems to be in no mood for Bush nostalgia. Perhaps its leaders should reconsider.
At a June 11 meeting with journalists sponsored by Bloomberg View, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush identified two issues on which an increasingly narrow Republican orthodoxy undermines the interests of the party and the nation. In each instance, at least one President Bush occupies the high ground, morally and politically.
The first is immigration. Jeb Bush (who is a member of the board of trustees of Bloomberg Philanthropies) lamented that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had effectively appealed to “angry” voters in the Republican primary. Romney endorsed Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, and advocated making life for them so harsh that they would opt for “self-deportation.” Other Republicans went further. Herman Cain proposed an electrified fence along the Mexican border, while Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota promised a “double-walled” model. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry was pummeled by fellow Republicans for having allowed illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities at in-state tuition rates.
No surprise, then, that Romney is “in somewhat of a box” with Hispanics, Bush said. Hispanic voters could be decisive in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia. According to a Latino Decisions poll released this month, President Barack Obama leads Romney among Hispanics, 66 percent to 23 percent.
In state after state, the Republican primary electorate presented a snapshot of the past. In Arizona, where 58 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, 89 percent of Republican primary voters were white. In Florida, where a sizable portion of the Cuban population votes Republican, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites voting in the Republican primary was 25 points higher than their percentage of the state population at large.
That must be especially troubling to Bush, who, as Florida’s governor, tried hard to make the Republican Party hospitable to Hispanics. As president, George W. Bush did likewise, supporting comprehensive immigration reform to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The bid failed, and in the years since, Republican resistance to immigration has grown reflexive and unyielding.
Rather than ceding the issue to Democrats, who have the luxury of looking good by comparison, Republicans would do themselves and the country a favor by reaching out to Hispanics -- and supporting the kind of policies that would make such outreach meaningful. Broad-based Hispanic support would breathe new life into the party, enabling it to recast an otherwise uncertain future as an overwhelmingly white political institution in an increasingly multiracial society.
Then there’s the lesson of President George H.W. Bush. In Republican mythology, the elder Bush committed a political sin when he negotiated and signed the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which required him to go back on his no-new-taxes pledge. In fact, as Jeb Bush pointed out this week, the deal was both right and courageous.
Above all, it was sound policy, cutting spending by $324 billion over five years while raising the top marginal tax rate to 31 percent from 28 percent, bringing in an additional $159 billion in revenue and instituting rules in Congress that required any new spending or tax cuts to be paid for. The deal created a foundation for President Bill Clinton’s breakthrough budgets and the federal surpluses of the late 1990s.
Sadly, this history was airbrushed away by President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress in the next decade, when the federal government ran up about $5 trillion in debt. Sadder still is that much of the Republican Party continues to subscribe to magical thinking on taxes and budgets.
The presidencies of both father and son offer many useful lessons to Republicans. Not all of them are negative. Some contain wisdom. Jeb Bush did his party a service in reminding us.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.