“The President’s Club,” by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, is the most fascinating political book I’ve read. It delves into the relationships in the world’s most powerful and exclusive club – Presidents of the United States.
The “club” was formed after World War II and the book begins with President Eisenhower, and how he valued the counsel of former Presidents Hoover and Truman. The authors traverse the chronology of Presidents right up through the first Obama term (the book was published in 2012), detailing friendships and rivalries, scandals and triumphs. Each President had active relationships with some or all of his living predecessors. Not all of those relationships were warm and cozy, but they were generally cordial and often revolved around the incumbent seeking, or at least entertaining, the advice of those who came before him. If the book were republished today, the latest chapter might be a short one, as the club seems to have gone into hibernation.
Over the weekend, the George W. Bush Presidential Center tweeted an uplifting message of unity from the former President.
President Bush took a soothing tone, something he is very effective at doing. He encouraged unity and discouraged us from being “partisan combatants.” He reminded us that we have faced times of testing before and that “empathy and simple kindness are essential and powerful tools of national recovery.” He spoke these words to all Americans, including Democrats in Congress and President Trump. They would be wise to listen. Trump’s response was to question Bush’s silence during the impeachment process. I’d consider that criticism fair game, had it come in January instead of in response to Bush’s inspirational weekend message.
Before Trump supporters begin bashing me or tune out altogether, understand that I am one too. While I didn’t vote for Trump in the 2016 primary, I did in the general election, and I have been pleased with many of his actions – albeit fewer of his words – as President. But I don’t believe that alienating supporters of the last Republican President is an effective strategy to get re-elected this year, and I hope he changes his tune.
Before the 2016 election, the most divisive one in modern history was the 2000 contest between Bush and Vice President Al Gore. I did not sleep on election night. After Bush was declared the winner (following Gore having been declared the winner), I finally stumbled off to bed sometime around 3 or 4 am. That’s when news broke that Gore was not conceding. I was out of bed again. I went to work at 8 am and battled fatigue throughout the day. I watched daily as ballots were inspected, recounts were done and lawsuits were filed, until the Supreme Court finally put it all to rest 36 days later. That election, following the turbulent second term of Bill Clinton, cemented a divide between the two major political parties that has never been bridged.
Despite 9/11, wars, claims of WMD, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, most Republicans love George W. Bush. Like most former Presidents, his popularity has grown since leaving office and he is considered a beloved former statesman. He has helped his cause by largely steering clear of politics since leaving office. Despite President Obama spending his first term blaming Bush for everything he could think of, and despite candidate Trump bashing his brother Jeb, George W. has remained stoic. I’m certain that he provided personal counsel to Obama and I’m certain he would provide it to Trump, if asked.
Trump should ask, for two reasons.
First, every President can benefit from the perspective of his predecessor. There are four men alive who can relate to the job that President Trump faces each day. It would likely be a bridge too far for Trump to reach out to Presidents Clinton or Obama for an empathetic ear. While I imagine, they would provide their counsel, the acrimony between Trump and Hillary Clinton makes any such call to her husband unlikely. Likewise, the growing evidence that Obama’s team launched multiple corrupt investigations to stymie Trump’s success, renders any truce between the two men a near impossibility. Presidents Carter and Bush remain, and Trump would benefit from occasional consultation with them both.
The second reason Trump should reach out is more political. A logical assumption is that most people who voted for George W. Bush voted for Trump. Certainly not all, but most. Likewise, most who voted for Trump also voted for Bush. After all, these are two Republican Presidents separated by just eight years. Sure, there are lots of differences in their bases and some like one and not the other, but they share a large common denominator of support. Alienating voters who are fond of “Bush 43” is dangerous and completely unnecessary.
Some of the most diehard Trump supporters believe that W was not conservative enough. They believe he was, and maybe that he remains, part of the “deep state,” or some “cabal” of entrenched government operatives – part of the very swamp that President Trump has vowed to drain. The thing is, these folks are so loyal to Trump that they would not flinch if he tweeted a few gracious words about Bush’s weekend message, or even if he invited him to the White House for an afternoon. On the other hand, the more moderate Republicans, many of whom like Trump or at least prefer him to the alternatives, would truly appreciate such gestures. It would generate party unity and would help them to connect the GOP’s past with its present and future.
Besides these two groups however, there are actually votes to be won if Trump would embrace the W fan base. Some of these voters swore they would not support Trump after his flaying of “Low Energy Jeb” in the 2016 primary campaign. He’s lost some others with his attacks on Senators John McCain and Mitt Romney. I’m not suggesting that Trump should cozy up to Romney or to McCain’s legacy – that acrimony flows both ways. But he has openly and frequently bashed the men who represented his own party in the four elections that preceded his own. A simple cease-fire with Romney and the late McCain would be nice, but an acceptance of and appreciation for George W. Bush could broaden the base in the November election.
In 2016, the choices were stark. Half the country despised Hillary Clinton. The other half either despised Trump or felt he was unfit for the job. This year, it’s different. While Joe Biden has his problems, he is not as polarizing a figure as was Clinton. Biden’s age, whispers of his fading mental capacity and accusations of misconduct ranging from being “handsy” to outright sexual assault are all challenges for him. Still, he doesn’t generate the blood boiling resentment in the bellies of so many that Secretary Clinton did, and still does. President Trump, on the other hand, has shored up the resentment from most on the Left, many in the middle and some on the Right, even more so than four years ago. While’s he’s no doubt won over some new supporters, he is more divisive now than ever before and could use an establishment GOP ally with a broad base of support. Not that George W. Bush would get out on the campaign trail for Trump – he won’t. But if he were seen as a trusted advisor, and tweeted about kindly once in a while, it would make a difference.
Trump won in 2016 because of who he ran against and because he was a non-politician with an outsider’s perspective. Both of those things have changed this year, and he needs another angle. He also needs to consolidate his base, and broaden it wherever possible. There’s no easier or more logical place to turn than to the last White House occupant from his own party.