Bush and Trump become central figures in GOP civil war
Former President George W. Bush is getting the band back together next month for a fundraiser for embattled Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in an effort to take the Republican Party back from former President Donald Trump.
It’s the latest front in a GOP civil war in which the party’s two most recent presidents are the most prominent figures.
The Cheney fundraiser features not only the 43rd president, but also well-known Bush White House alumni such as Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Harriet Miers, in addition to former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Cheney, the daughter of Bush's Vice President Dick Cheney, was stripped earlier this year of her position as the third-ranking Republican in the House over her incessant Trump criticism. She was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted for his second impeachment after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. She and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are the two Republicans handpicked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve on the Democrats’ Jan. 6 committee.
Trump has relentlessly targeted the 10, recently cheering there were “9 to go” when Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez declined to seek reelection.
The Cheney fundraiser pits Team Bush against Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman . Hundreds of former aides to Bush and the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP standard-bearer, backed the Democratic ticket over Trump in 2020.
But it is not all a personal or family grudge match. Trump broke with Bush’s policies on trade, immigration, and foreign policy, strongly opposing amnesty for most illegal immigrants and calling the Iraq War a “big, fat mistake.” Trump favored a more aggressive timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan than President Joe Biden. Bush warned the “consequences are going to be unbelievably bad and sad.”
Bush mostly stayed quiet during President Barack Obama’s presidency, but under Trump, he began to distance himself from the direction of the GOP. “I don’t like the racism, and I don’t like the name-calling, and I don’t like the people feeling alienated,” Bush said over a month after Trump’s inauguration. Bush reportedly described Trump’s speech at that 2017 event as “some weird s***.”
"We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism —forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush said in a speech to his institute later that year. “We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.”
Bush also took some shots at Trump’s style, decrying a “discourse degraded by casual cruelty.” He also complained, “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Even after Trump left office, Bush expressed concern in an interview earlier this year that the Republican Party had become "isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist." While he walked that back, he appeared to invoke Jan. 6 and some of the Trump-era political trends he disliked in his speech marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks earlier this month.
“And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Bush may be the biggest name in GOP politics to stand in Trump’s way. McCain died in 2018. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has seen his standing with conservatives take a hit. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has emerged as a staunch Trump ally.
But the personal drives this feud as well as the political, and direct Bush confrontation with Trump hasn’t always worked. Trump repeatedly used former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the 43rd president’s younger brother, as a punching bag in the 2014-2016 Republican primary debates.
The former president came to South Carolina to campaign for his brother in a last-ditch attempt to deny Trump the nomination and keep Jeb’s own quest for the presidency alive. “I understand that Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration,” the older Bush brother said.
Trump had squarely taken aim at Bush's foreign policy legacy in a debate, seen as a risky move in the conservative, military-heavy Palmetto State. “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that," Trump said. He accused the ex-president of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Trump then won the South Carolina primary, finishing 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival en route to the nomination and the White House. Jeb Bush finished fourth, with 7.8% of the vote and fewer than 60,000 total votes. He dropped out the next day.
There is no recent precedent for two presidents of the same party, whose administrations were so close together, having this acrimonious of a relationship or such stark ideological differences.
Republican operatives told the Washington Examiner they had reservations about this clash of the titans, given that both Bush and Trump left office with declining popularity. Bush presided over the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the deterioration of the Iraq War, leaving office with a 22% approval rating in a CBS News/ New York Times poll. Trump never broke 50% approval in the polling averages and saw his standing damaged by the pandemic.
“This may not be a winning combination,” a GOP strategist said. "We need new blood, and hopefully, we'll get it."
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