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How The Republican Party Changed During George H.W. Bush's Presidency


OK, a little more history now - George H.W. Bush was born in Massachusetts the son of a Wall Street investment banker who would go on to be a U.S. senator. Bush went to the best schools. He served his country at war, and as president, he became known as a pragmatist who could compromise. He was, in other words, very much a symbol of a different kind of Republican Party. And the years he served as president were years in which the GOP itself was changing.

Here to talk about that change is NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.


KELLY: So I have been struck reading all the obituaries and remembrances by how often throughout his career and public life Bush seemed to find himself in disagreement with his own party. Walk us through some of that.

MONTANARO: Yeah, you know, look; first of all, this was someone who was chairman of the Republican National Committee during Watergate. So he was very much a political player. When Ronald Reagan came on the scene, he was leading a movement, one that really believed that government was the problem and in this orthodoxy of tax cuts. When running against Reagan, though, you know, George H.W. Bush...

KELLY: This is 1980 for the...

MONTANARO: ...In 1980...

KELLY: ...Presidential nomination.

MONTANARO: ...For the Republican presidential nomination, he disagreed with that policy. And he referred to it this way.


GEORGE H W BUSH: What I call a voodoo economic policy.

MONTANARO: Right, voodoo economic policy, which is something that he wound up having to back away from when he became Reagan's vice president.

KELLY: As you do, yeah.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean - and it was a very curious way he did it. At one point in 1982, Bush claimed that he'd actually never said it. Of course he had, and the news outlets had the tapes to show it. And it was part of his transition that became complete in 1988 at the Republican National Convention during his acceptance speech when he famously said this.


BUSH: Read my lips - no new taxes.


KELLY: Of course, Domenico, he then found that pledge was...


KELLY: ...A hard one to keep. Was he - I mean, I wonder. Was this his personal evolution, or was he trying to keep pace with where the country was going or where the party was going or what?

MONTANARO: Well, look; he was a pragmatist. He wanted to win. Remember; this is a political guy, and he knew he needed that GOP base - sound familiar, right?

KELLY: Yeah.

MONTANARO: So he made that promise hoping it would help him, and it did. But, you know, he was faced with big problems - I mean, increasing federal deficits and a Democratic-controlled Congress. He did wind up raising taxes in a compromise budget deal. The backlash, though, that that caused cost him not only to lose re-election partially in 1992 but fundamentally changed the Republican Party.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican leader in the House at the time, stormed out of the White House when he learned of this deal. And after Bush, you know, lost re-election, Gingrich built a campaign around really an uncompromising ideological purity for the Republican Party. And he and they were very much rewarded.

Republicans were swept in control of the House for the first time in almost 40 years in 1994 during that - what was known as the Republican Revolution. And that ideological purity has really been a hallmark of the Republican Party since, and compromise has become a dirty word.

KELLY: One more thing I want to take up with you, Domenico, which was that George H.W. Bush was a man who had done every job you can imagine in Washington, brought a wealth of expertise to the presidency. And he really seemed to value expertise in the people that he hired.

MONTANARO: That's right. And in fact, I talked to Aaron David Miller, who runs the Middle East - Middle East policy at the Wilson Center now. And in 1982, though, he was working for an intelligence bureau within the State Department. He penned this memo that was really tucked in the back of a briefing book. And he got a phone call. And the phone call was from George H.W. Bush, the vice president, who wanted to know everything about this memo on Lebanon which was really questioning the policy at the time. And he had showed to Miller that this was somebody who really valued that kind of expertise in a time when now government is seen as the problem with a lot of Republicans.

KELLY: Thanks, Domenico. NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.