It was an odd juxtaposition: those country-club Republicans, like his own father George H.W. Bush, were synonymous with WASP culture, and Donald Trump, who built his political career on nativist politics, now lives at his country club.
But the criticism of the party’s narrowness stood out. Increasingly over the past half-century, exclusivity has been the party’s brand. Yet Bush may not be the best messenger for this rebuke. While he has been a central proponent of outreach to Latinos and embracing more open immigration, he also played a leading role in the party’s shift toward the minoritarian politics that enable it to remain a party of exclusion.
It’s true that Bush cut against a trend toward nativism in the Republican Party. In 1994, when Bush ran for governor of Texas, a campaign was brewing in California that would transform the party’s immigration politics. That year, California’s Republican Party united around Proposition 187, which called for undocumented immigrants to be stripped of all social services, from nonemergency health care to public education.
The initiative was a non-starter — the US Supreme Court had already ruled that undocumented children had a right to public education — but it politicized and nationalized the issue of immigration, just in time for the 1996 presidential race. And when the proposition passed by wide margins, despite its unconstitutionality, the politics of immigration shifted sharply to the right.
But not everyone was on board. Bush came out against the initiative. So did Jack Kemp and William Bennett, both of whom had served in former President Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet and harbored presidential ambitions of their own. In 1994, they issued a joint statement warning against the party’s nativist turn. They kept up the pressure after Proposition 187 passed, worried that the GOP was at risk of turning into “a protectionist and isolationist and more xenophobic party.”
The split in the party would be evident in the 1996 ticket: Bob Dole, who had veered right on immigration as he fended off a challenge from nativist and nationalist Pat Buchanan in the primaries, chose Kemp as his running mate. But the party was now associated with Proposition 187 and the racist rhetoric and advertising that popped up around it. Those factors combined to drop Latino support for the Republican ticket to the lowest on record, with Dole winning just 21% of the Latino vote.
That’s where Bush enters the story, with his pro-immigration, pro-Latino campaign in 2000. Running on a message of “compassionate conservatism” and with an eye toward more liberal immigration reform, he helped rebrand the Republican Party as more inclusive, winning 35% of the Latino vote in 2000 and 40% four years later.
But that is not to suggest Bush was committed to a politics of inclusivity. His reelection campaign infamously relied on anti-marriage equality referendums in a number of states. While he took a liberal line on immigration and worked hard on Latino outreach, he was more than willing to exclude other minority groups, like gay and lesbian people advocating for the right to marry, when it suited him.
Nor was he wedded to majoritarian politics. True, he is the only Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of the vote since 1988. In 2000, however, he lost the popular vote and relied on the Supreme Court to block the recount in Florida and secure an Electoral College victory.
Nor was he able to quiet or convert the nativist wing of his party. When he pushed for immigration reform in his second term, it led to a frenzied backlash from the base (and ultimately the failure of the policy).
Rather than leaving behind a more inclusive party, Bush revealed that immigration had become the party’s new fault line. Politicians who showed any give on immigration paid a price. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry instantly dropped in the polls after criticizing the party’s harshness toward immigrants during the 2011-2012 primaries. A year later, when party leaders called for a more inclusive approach in their post-mortem analysis, there seemed to be no real appetite for inclusivity from the party’s base. When Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida lobbied for immigration reform in 2013, his polls for a possible presidential run in 2016 cratered.
The 2016 election also highlights one other failure of Bush’s analysis: the GOP can win as a minority party. The Electoral College, gerrymandering, misinformation campaigns and other processes that enable minoritarian rule have become keys to Republican power over the past 20 years. Despite nods to great inclusivity, the real energy of the party has been focused on ways to press all the minoritarian levers available in order to remain in power — something the Bush campaign modeled for them in 2000 by pulling out all the stops to halt the Florida recount after losing the popular vote.
The Republican Party does have an exclusivity problem, but for now, it is an ethical problem, not a political one. Limiting ballot access, dehumanizing migrants, spreading conspiracies — these are despicable behaviors, and they have become all too common among some GOP leaders.
But so long as they prove effective for Republican politicians, the party will have little reason to heed Bush’s advice. And so long as he fails to acknowledge his own complicity in the direction his party has headed, the rest of us will have little reason to listen either.