This past week we lost a war hero, public servant, and the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush. Though he began his presidency almost three decades ago, in this short historical period, American politics have changed drastically.
Political polarization is the new norm both within our government and in our public discourse. Our two political parties view themselves as diabolically opposed to each other, directly competing for the hearts and minds of the American public. Agreeing or working with the other side is seen as treason. When one party holds the most power, the other party is expected to obstruct rather than govern. There is no compromise. There is one winner and one loser. This degree of polarization casts serious doubt over the future health of our democracy. However, George Bush defied this dysfunction with the way in which he governed and lived his life. As perhaps the last American President to do so, his actions may provide a framework for how we can fix our democracy.
Bush passed a tax bill in 1990 in a manner that would be unthinkable in the present-day. In the midst of a temporary government shutdown, the Republican Bush sided with congressional Democrats to outweigh the opposition coming from his own party and pass a tax bill that would eventually be viewed as a success in helping turn the budget deficit into a surplus several years later. Yet, any tax hike will be unpopular and this was only magnified by opposition coming from his own party by people as powerful as the future Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. As such, passing this bill and the manner in which he did it ultimately cost him re-election in 1994.
We should not view this as a failure; rather we should commend such courage. It is not the job of a president to be re-elected. It’s his job to govern in a way that best serves the interests of the country, not in a way that best serves his approval rating. Sometimes that may mean raising taxes and Bush had the tremendous courage to do so despite committing the equivalent of political suicide. When leaders from his own party withdrew support for his tax plan, Bush did not budge; instead, he reached across the aisle and worked with the other party to create a plan that was both a compromise and the best way forward for the country. He put country over party. He placed his responsibility to govern over the preservation of party unity, just as an elected official should.
Bush’s last act in office was leaving a letter for his successor who had just beat him in re-election in which he told 42nd president Bill Clinton: “Your success is now our country’s success, I am rooting hard for you.” This was not some typical, superficial talk coming from one politician to another hoping to create a good visual. Bush was being entirely genuine. He pushed aside political consideration, instead choosing to serve with the intent of creating a better America and better world.
Ryan Steinberg is a junior majoring in political science.