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Bush, long the devoted team player, was anxious to move beyond serving others and break out on his own, confident that the transition from the deputy ranks to the executive suite would be one more of degree than of kind. The presidency was simply the next logical step. Bush's family had moved in official and social Washington for decades. Like his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, George, the ambitious son of the Eastern Establishment, was accustomed to the trappings of power and of wealth. "A president we won't have to train" was his 1980 campaign slogan.
As he had done in his past campaigns for the House and Senate, Bush positioned himself in the presidential pack as a conservative. Although he and Ronald Reagan, his chief rival, shared general notions about conservative issues such as defense, market economics, and a restricted welfare state, Bush's brand of conservatism, with its decidedly Eastern-seaboard smell, was very different from his rival's. Down to the soles of his wing tips, Bush was a blue-blood conservative. Bush's conservatism embodied the timeworn association of Republican politics with old wealth. This exclusive brand of Republicanism was captured in Bush's persona as the rugged outdoorsman, speeding along in a powerboat on choppy waters, or fishing in a worn cap and T-shirt. There are, after all, two kinds of rugged: those who are -- lumberjacks, farmers -- and those who can afford to be. One is a necessity, a means of life. The other is a diversion, a means of entertainment. Bush's donned ruggedness spoke to the security of his station in the hierarchy.
Reagan's supply-side "populism," on the other hand, sought -- at least rhetorically -- to break down the barriers that made Republican politics the provenance of the wealthy. With its elusive lexicon of self-financing, revenue-neutral tax cuts, and sexy Laffer Curves, Reaganomics beckoned to the uninitiated, leading them from the dreaded Carter malaise with the promise that under Reagan everyone could afford to be a Republican.
Bush ridiculed the supply siders. "A 30 percent tax cut?" went one of his stump speeches, "God, that's great politics. People stand up and cheer. But I don't believe you can do it." Throughout the campaign, Bush assailed Reagan's supply-side theories, ridiculing them as "economic madness." Then one day in April 1980, Bush let loose with what would be the most memorable line of the campaign. Reagan's supply-side theories were "voodoo economics," he declared. They were words that would later haunt him.
If Bush was traditionally conservative on economic issues, he was less so on others. This put him further at odds with Reagan, who dogmatically adhered to conservative standards. Bush supported ERA, for example; Reagan steadfastly opposed it. Reagan wanted abortion outlawed with a constitutional amendment; Bush supported Roe v. Wade. (Bush had long been favorable to abortion rights. As a member of Congress in the Sixties, before the Roe decision, he was an avid booster of Planned Parenthood. In a 1988 article in the LA Weekly, David Corn noted that Democratic Rep. Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on which Bush held a seat, nicknamed Bush "Rubbers," because of his support of family planning. Seizing upon Bush's House record, Lloyd Bentsen had attempted to paint Bush as a liberal in his Texas race for the Senate against Bush in 1970.)
Had he won the nomination and beaten Carter at the polls, Bush would likely have settled into a presidency of noblesse oblige, one in which a tacit acknowledgement of the responsibility of inherited wealth nudged him to take the nation's troubles seriously, a presidency in which budgets were supposed to be balanced and abortion rights were assumed. The posturing and rhetoric of sharp political ideology, so evident in Ronald Reagan's politics, would have played little part in a Bush presidency. He was by upbringing and education the pragmatist to Reagan's evangelist. Where Reagan saw the world strictly in black and white, Bush, with his Yale degree and U.N.-CIA-RNC resume, couldn't deny the shades of gray that cluttered the political landscape, making it difficult for him to see clear to the other side. As Bush would admit repeatedly, he had trouble with that "vision thing."
Tapped by his former opponent to round out the Republican ticket in the summer of 1980, however, he soon was back in the familiar role of obedient underling. Bush was transformed overnight into a faithful and fervent adherent to Reagan's new borrow-and-spend conservatism. In anticipation of his ascendancy to the vice presidency, what previously was "economics madness" to Bush suddenly became "good common sense." Hallelujah. Bush was born again, a supply sider.
Just as quickly, the vice presidential candidate became an opponent of ERA and adopted a new position on abortion: Life began at conception and fetuses were endowed with inalienable rights.
To be sure, Bush wasn't the first politician to throw his politics to the wind at the prospect of becoming vice president. It's in the job description. As Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon seethed in silence. Lyndon Johnson kept his bombastic, confrontational style in check as mild-mannered John F. Kennedy's number two. In 1988 Bush's old rival Lloyd Bentsen would subordinate his pro-contra politics to Michael Dukakis's criticisms of the Reagan administration's intervention in Nicaragua.