Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Houston began with a salute to George H.W. Bush, who was in attendance.
The homage to America’s 41st president, who has battled health problems, was genuinely moving. But it was also a reminder of how much the GOP has changed since Bush’s day -- and how little today’s Republican presidential candidates have in common with him.
Trying to summarize the debate would be difficult, because it was another raucous, disjointed affair. Prior to the event, news reports suggested that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would focus on attacking each other, rather than criticizing real estate mogul Donald Trump, the clear front-runner. Those reports turned out to be wrong.
Rubio pounced on Trump early, repeatedly, and mercilessly. He brought up facts about Trump’s past that have received surprisingly little attention this campaign season -- like lawsuits over the way Trump’s companies treated immigrant labor. Cruz also attacked Trump, suggesting he was an unreliable conservative on everything from the courts to Obamacare. Trump fought back as he always has -- by launching ad hominem attacks and saying a bunch of stuff about “winning.”
In theory, Rubio and Cruz got the better of those exchanges, since Trump never really responded to their attacks. In reality? Who knows. Trump has had weak debate performances before and they don’t seem to have hurt his popularity.
But to focus on which candidate looked best is to miss the bigger picture, which is about how ideologically extreme the Republican Party has become.
All three front-runners have proposed massive tax cuts that would require either massive deficits or unprecedented cuts to social spending, all while giving the lion’s share of benefits to the rich.
All three front-runners have taken a hard line on the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., promising to rescind the protection from deportation many now enjoy from President Barack Obama’s executive orders -- and blasting those orders as unconstitutional.
And all three front-runners have called for repealing the Affordable Care Act without sketching out an alternative -- which would mean taking health insurance away from many millions of people.
In all of these cases, the contrast with Bush’s tenure is stark.
On fiscal issues, Bush famously signed a budget agreement that modestly raised taxes, in return for some modest spending cuts --, thereby reducing the deficit and laying the groundwork for the surpluses that came years later.
On immigration, Bush signed an executive order blocking deportations that would break up certain families.
On health care, Bush never got behind major expansions of coverage, but he also never tried to take away insurance that people already had from government programs.
Of course, conservatives didn’t like these decisions -- and they were particularly incensed that Bush agreed to raise taxes. It’s one reason that, today, so many Republicans take public pledges never to raise taxes, and then, in presidential campaigns, compete with one another over who can offer the largest, most audacious tax breaks to the wealthy.
For a few minutes on Thursday, it seemed as if maybe conservatives had decided it was time to move on -- and to recognize Bush for what historians increasingly view as a successful term of governance.
Then the debate began and the candidates started talking -- and it became apparent that the GOP front-runners had zero interest in governing the way Bush had.