How George H.W. Bush Became a Democrat
America’s center-left resisted his approach to foreign policy—and eventually adopted it as their own.
Reflecting on the life of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, one immediately thinks of his fundamental decency, his dedication to service, his skill at relationships, and his magnanimity in victory and defeat. Yet for a politician who spent decades as a proud Republican stalwart, one of Bush’s more unexpected legacies will be his enduring inspiration as a foreign-policy leader for Democrats.
Ask a Democratic foreign-policy expert which presidents they most admire. They will likely answer Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy… and George H.W. Bush.
This is especially striking given that when Bush left office a quarter-century ago after only one term, liberals derided him both for caring too much about problems abroad instead of those at home and for being a wimp. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton—whom Bush and his team then considered a draft-dodger wholly unqualified to be commander in chief—criticized Bush for coddling the “butchers of Beijing” after the Tiananmen Square massacre and for a feckless response to the war in Bosnia. It may seem hard to imagine, but the Clinton team worked to bring neoconservatives, who had become similarly disillusioned with Bush, back into the Democratic Party fold with the aim of forging a new foreign-policy consensus.
Even then, however, Democrats could see that Bush was a victim of his own success. They understood that without his steady management of the tumultuous end of the Cold War, the American people would have been unlikely to elect someone like Clinton with so little experience in global affairs. Once in office, several of the core elements of Clinton’s foreign policy were built on Bush’s foundation, such as global trade agreements like NAFTA, the Middle East peace process, and NATO enlargement. The Clinton team quickly grew to respect Bush’s skilled handling of crises and keen understanding of the use of U.S. power, as well as its limits.
This admiration only grew in time, as what were once considered Bush’s failures—such as not marching to Baghdad to take out Saddam Hussein in 1991—looked much wiser in contrast with what was to come. Moreover, Bush was an old-school internationalist. He believed in cultivating alliances, did not hesitate to confront adversaries while being unafraid to engage with them, and had great faith in the potential of organizations like the United Nations and NATO.
Bush’s legacy has also been embraced by Democrats not only because of what he stood for or what he tried to do, but also because of how he did it. The Bush team—James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and even Dick Cheney—are widely admired among professionals as the master class of foreign-policy making. Taking their cues from the top, they operated with optimism, confidence, pragmatism, and an admirable lack of drama. Today, this group is what most Democratic foreign-policy teams aspire to be.
This was certainly true for Barack Obama. From the earliest days of his first campaign for president, Obama talked about his admiration for Bush, describing him as one of the country’s most underrated presidents who does not get enough credit for his accomplishments. Obama learned from Bush’s example, seeking to blend ambition with prudence and adhering to what historian Jeffrey Engel describes as Bush’s “Hippocratic” approach toward diplomacy. Obama openly celebrated this lineage: In 2011, he welcomed Bush back to the White House to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As much as any foreign-policy leader of either party, it has been Obama who carried forward Bush’s tradition most faithfully.
This says a lot about the state of Democratic foreign policy. But it says even more about Republicans. Amid the outpouring of praise about Bush and celebration of his accomplishments, it is hard to find many on the right today who advocate for policies to emulate his foreign policy. Instead, conservatives are deeply torn between the Trumpist majority, who espouse the same nativist, paranoid, pessimistic views of Bush’s two principal political adversaries—Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot—and the dwindling number of interventionist hawks who mistook Bush’s restraint for weakness and saw his humility as a lack of confidence.
One doubts if what’s left of the Bush foreign-policy acolytes have much of a future in today’s Republican Party. However, while they might not want to admit it, they would fit comfortably within the mainstream of today’s Democratic foreign policy. When it comes to forging America’s role in the world after Trump, this may turn out to be one of George H.W. Bush’s most important legacies.