The limits of Poppy chic

    Who could ever have imagined that we’d gaze fondly upon the presidency of George H. W. Bush?I’m talking here about the father, not the son. The son is ranked in a new CNN/ORC poll as the least popular of the four living ex-presidents (can’t imagine why), whereas the father is number two on the popularity meter behind Bill Clinton. Hence the onset of what Bush biographer Jon Meacham calls “Poppy chic,” a reference to the father’s family nickname. This burst of nostalgia is a noteworthy development, at least for those of us who remember what happened in 1992, when Poppy was heaved from the White House with only 38 percent of the vote, the worst percentage showing for any incumbent since William Howard Taft in 1912.It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for Poppy chic. Maybe the senior Bush looks better in retrospect because he orchestrated a successful war and mostly behaved like a gentleman rather than a partisan; or maybe he just looks better than W and Jimmy Carter. Or, as son Jeb seems to be suggesting, maybe it’s because Poppy reached across the aisle and pursued bipartisan deals that were in the national interest. What a concept!Jeb, the ex-Florida governor and non-presidential candidate, lauded his dad on Monday at a press breakfast, while making the obvious point that neither Poppy nor Ronald Reagan would fit into today’s absolutist Republican party. The money quote: “Ronald Reag=an, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, similar to my dad, they would have a hard time if you define the Republican party – and I don’t – as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.” (I love that qualifier “and I don’t.” Because he just did.)At another point, he said that his father “got a lot of things done with bipartisan support,” a track record that wouldn’t fly in today’s GOP (“it’s just difficult to imagine”). And yesterday, on Twitter, he followed up: “My dad & Reagan sacrificed political points for good public policy.”In other words, Reagan repeatedly raised taxes when it was necessary. And most famously (or, from the perspective of GOP absolutists, most infamously), George H. W. Bush forged a 1990 budget deal with congressional Democrats, a deal that seriously slashed the deficit in part by raising some taxes, a deal that helped set the stage (along with Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget deal) for the late ’90s budget surpluses that, in Jeb’s words, were “helpful in creating a climate for sustained economic growth.”Looking back, Bush’s 1990 bipartisan budget pact indeed stands out as a brave political act, a statesmanlike decision forged in the national interest. In an earlier era, Bush might even have rated a chapter in JFK’s “Profiles in Courage,” which recounted instances when politicians defied political norms in order to get things done. Bush, after all, forged this deal despite having vowed/pandered to conservatives in 1988 that there would be “no new taxes.” But, alas, the budget deal infuriated conservatives and helped fuel the extremist impulses that hold sway in the GOP today. All too predictably, right-wing lobbyist Grover Norquist, the apparatchik of absolutism and author of the no-new-taxes-under-any-circumstances pledge, assailed Jeb Bush yesterday, denouncing his remarks as “foolish” and “bizarre.”So while the senior Bush might be broadly popular today with Americans in general, he’s still anathema to the Republican right. There are serious limits to Poppy chic.With no apparent success, Jeb channels his dad’s budget deal whenever he tries to talk sense to the party. He says that congressional Republicans should be willing to sign on to any new budget deal that cuts $10 for every $1 hike in taxes; he was aghast, during the primary season debates, when every candidate on stage, including Mitt Romney, signaled opposition to that kind of formula.And in congressional testimony last month, Jeb said something very Incorrect, a crime against orthodoxy. He dared to criticized Norquist: “I don’t believe you outsource your convictions and principles to people.”Maybe that was true way back in the late ’80s, in the era that Jeb nostalgically calls “my dad’s time,” but that’s hardly true today, when the GOP is gripped by what Jeb calls “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.” (Jeb says he can talk this way because, in his words, “I don’t have to play the game of being 100,000 percent against President Obama.”)Indeed, if Jeb still contemplates running for president in the future, presumably with the goal of resuscitating the bipartisan credo, he should probably park that dream. Poppy chic may be hot right now, but any candidate who dares to praise Poppy’s bipartisanship during a Republican debate would be booed right off the stage. Jeb himself has said that his window opportunity may have closed already, and he surely knows why. Candor can be a killer.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.