By Jackson K. ’21
Thirty-two years ago, the President of the United States and leader of the Republican Party was George H.W. Bush. Bush had won the 1988 presidential election with a policy platform of “compassionate conservatism” that included environmental prudence, international engagement, and a firm belief in compromise and bipartisanship. While he certainly held other more traditionally conservative views, such as supporting the 2nd amendment and emphasizing low taxes, Bush was nonetheless a political moderate through and through. Bush was also very experienced, having served as Chief of the Liaison Office to China, the director of the CIA, and the Vice President for eight years. The current leader of the GOP, Donald Trump, couldn’t be more different, characterizing himself as an outsider and famous for his bombastic and unapologetic mannerisms and rhetoric. The Republican Party had become so unrecognizable to Bush that he even casted a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In a period of just three decades, how has such a dramatic change in messaging and style taken place, and what does it mean for the future of the Grand Old Party?
In 1988, George H.W. Bush became the nominee of a divided Republican Party. Bush belonged more to the moderate wing of the party, sometimes referred to as “country club Republicans.” Oftentimes, these Republicans were wealthy, well-educated, and tended to lean to the middle of the political spectrum on economic and social issues. The other wing were more conservative “Reaganite” Republicans, getting their name from their ravid support of the previous President, Ronald Reagan. Reaganites tended to be much more conservative on the issues than Bush’s wing, supporting the idea of trickle-down economics and gigantic military spending while being against the legalization of abortion and even parts of the civil rights movement. Reaganites believed Bush to be a “counterfeit conservative,” angered by Bush’s criticisms of Reagan’s “supply-side economics,” in which taxes were slashed while military spending was raised. Still, Bush managed to win the nomination, and he went on to beat Michael Dukakis in the general election by way of an electoral college landslide. In his four years in office, Bush had many signature accomplishments, most notably his successful creation of an international coalition that subsequently pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. Additionally, the Cold War came to an end on his watch, as he navigated the Western World through the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, however, Bush’s foreign policy achievements couldn’t compensate for what had gone on domestically. Bush had been forced to directly contradict his most famous campaign promise of no new taxes, as the government’s debt was increasing rapidly for the first time in over thirty years, partially thanks to the previous Reagan administration. Though he was re-nominated by the Republican Party, Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Bush’s dream of a “kinder, gentler America” was vanquished, as was the wing of “compassionate conservatives” that had held out against the Reaganites.
For many Republicans, especially the Reagnites, the 1992 election showed that Bush’s bipartisanship and moderation should not be the future, and that the party should begin moving more to the right. These beliefs were affirmed by the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, in which the GOP won a net fifty-four seats in the House of Representatives and eight seats in the Senate, giving them majority in both chambers for the first time since the 1950s. Additionally, the GOP took control of a majority of state legislatures for the first time in fifty years. Clearly, the American people wanted change, and trusted the newly consolidated and more conservative Republican party to implement it. Though Republican nominee Bob Dole was crushed by the popular pre-scandal Clinton in the 1996 presidential election, the GOP held both chambers of Congress, and were as equal to the Democrats in terms of legislative power than any other time in recent memory.
In 2000, the son of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, became the Republican nominee for president. Bush Jr. was rated by some political scientists as more conservative for his time than even Ronald Reagan. In a famously contentious and controversial election, Bush pulled an upset victory over Al Gore, winning the deciding state of Florida by hundreds of votes. This gave Bush the electoral victory despite the fact that he had lost the popular vote, making Bush only one of five presidents who have been elected in such a fashion. Bush’s time as the 43rd President quickly became consequential, as only eight months after he was inaugurated, a horrified America witnessed the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Bush promptly declared a “War on Terror,” focusing his efforts on bringing the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks, Al-Qaeda, to justice. Bush invaded Afghanistan, which was largely accepted, as most believed that the nation was harboring Al-Qaeda leaders. More controversially, however, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Iraq’s ties to the War on Terror were not clear, and the supposed weapons of mass destruction that Bush claimed Iraq possessed ended up being nonexistent. By the time the election season of 2004 rolled around, Bush seemed to be in real jeopardy, as the worsening situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq continued to claim American lives. However, just days before the election, a video surfaced of Osama Bin Laden voicing various threats towards the invading forces, and Bush’s numbers benefited significantly. Bush ended up winning in a much more convincing fashion than 2000, as most Americans liked that he emphasized being tough on terrorism more than John Kerry, the Democrat challenger.
By the time 2008 had rolled around, however, the Republican Party was in trouble. George W. Bush’s second term had not gone well, ending particularly badly in a historic recession. In the 2006 midterms, the Democrats had won back both chambers of Congress. With an approval rating of just 25%, Bush’s unpopularity didn’t do many favors to John McCain, the Republican nominee for president. Though McCain had long been known for his ability to compromise on the Senate floor, echoing a time of old, his views were still undoubtedly conservative. McCain didn’t support major action against climate change, he was for the 2nd amendment, and he was less tolerant about immigration than his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. However, 2008 became a disaster for the GOP, as the Democrats won the White House and both chambers of Congress, paving the way for unusually impactful legislation like the Affordable Care Act. Though Republicans managed to win back the House of Representatives in 2010, the party was on the defensive in Washington as it prepared to take back the Presidency in 2012.
In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney ran on many of the same policies as McCain had four years prior, including increased immigration restrictions and less economic regulation. Yet, much like McCain, Romney fell short of the mark, losing to Obama in a relatively competitive election. Having been left with less political power than the Democratic party in 2006, 2008, 2010, and now 2012, it was clear that something needed to change. Republican lawmakers noticed that they had performed especially poorly among the rapidly growing Latino/a/x demographic, as Obama had carried 71% of all Latino/a/x voters. The GOP looked like a party for white voters in an America that was becoming more diverse every year. Trying to tap into the invaluable Latino/a/x voting group, Republican lawmakers tried to embrace immigration, believing their staunch anti-immigration views were costing them. As such, in 2013, Republican Senators including Marco Rubio worked with Democrats on an immigration bill which gave undocumented immigrants a path towards legal status. Though the bill eventually died in the Republican-held House, the resounding 68 votes it had received in the Senate signalled to many that Republicans were beginning to embrace a more inclusive perspective on immigration, and were potentially warming to the idea of becoming more moderate in general. Though this shift may have helped the GOP effort to expand and diversify, it also angered and alienated its base of primarily white voters who remained strongly opposed to large amounts of immigration. Even as the Republicans secured both chambers of Congress in 2014, many Republican voters began to distrust their party leaders. The party was again being fractured into a more moderate, pragmatic branch, mainly compromising party leaders, and a more idealistic, uncompromisingly conservative branch, which a majority of the Republican voting base belonged to. The sudden feeling of disconnection between many GOP politicians and their base provided the perfect environment for someone new, bold, and perhaps even a bit untraditional heading into the 2016 election.
Donald Trump arrived on the scene of the GOP at exactly the right moment. Republicans were struggling to define themselves and didn’t have a true leader that most could rally behind. Trump’s crude and unfiltered approach to debates and campaign events galvanized many voters, as he seemed to be the opposite of the lies and corruption that he claimed to be plaguing both the Democrats and parts of their own party. Circumventing the party establishment, Trump relied entirely on the Republican base, and they responded. Despite opposition from “Never Trump” Republicans, Trump won the nomination before stunning the world in a victory over Hillary Clinton, in which he became the second Republican in the last sixteen years to have won the electoral college despite losing the popular vote. Over the last four years, Trump fought for many right-leaning ideals, including increased isolationism, nationalism, a lack of concern regarding climate change, and heavily restricted immigration. Undoubtedly one of the more conservative presidents in history, Trump garnered the unwavering support of his voting base, which primarily consisted of poor and middle-class white voters in the South and Midwest. Abroad, “Trumpism” has been on the rise, with leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and increasingly popular candidates like Marine Le Pen of France holding many of the same beliefs and using many of the same mannerisms as the president. Outside of conservative strongholds, however, Trump struggled to unify or win over many Americans, and his approval rating struggled to ever surpass 50% during his term. Trump’s lack of experience and controversial political style also cost him, as his term was littered with blunders, including his response to the Charlottesville rally in 2017, Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer, and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though Trump was especially influential in reshaping the country’s courts and enacted largescale tax reforms, his missteps proved to be insurmountable, as he appears to have lost the 2020 general election to Joe Biden (though the President continues to contest the election results at the time of writing this article, I will operate under the assumption that he has lost, as most election officials, experts, and reporters believe that the result is final).
With the defeat of Donald Trump, the Republican Party finds itself at a major crossroads. Should it continue to embrace Trumpism and uncompromising conservatism, hoping that its dwindling base of white voters can continue to vote more than the larger, historically less motivated Democratic base? After all, it seems that Trump is interested in a 2024 run at office, and many of his most ardent supporters, including his family members, are already in power or are poised to be elected into it. Or should Republicans begin to embrace certain policies that other conservative parties around the world support, like universal health care, gun restrictions, or environmental concern, risking its small but fervent base for a larger pool of supporters? The answer is unclear. What is clear is the fact that something decisive must be done, either in one direction or the other. The GOP has won the popular vote just once in the last seven presidential elections, Republicans are torn between whether to pledge their continued allegiance to Trump or not, and many of its values are becoming increasingly outdated by the standards of the Western World. It will be fascinating to see how the “Party of Lincoln” decides to present itself, what it decides to stand for, and how it will continue to address the polarization, partisanship, and crises of the 21st century.