Ever since George W. Bush went home to paint puppies, Republicans have generally lauded him as a tough commander-in-chief who “kept us safe.” But Donald Trump is torching that party mantra.
South Carolina, which will stage its GOP primary on Saturday night, is arguably the state that will make or break Trump and Jeb Bush. It’s a state, long dominated by the Republican establishment, that has revered the Bush family. It saved George H. W. Bush’s candidacy in 1988, and Dubyah’s candidacy in 2000. It was their firewall.
And yet, over the last few days, Trump has been pounding that wall with rhetorical TNT, saying heretical stuff that no Republican ever dared utter before. Conventional wisdom, as voiced by the Bush camp, is that this time Trump has really truly finally gone too far, that what he’s saying in a place like South Carolina is tantamount to political suicide.
But I wouldn’t bet on that.
Trump, of course, is right on this one issue. Dubyah’s elective war in Iraq was a destabilizing, multi-trillion-dollar disaster fought on false premises that stains him forever as one of the worst presidents in history. Still, you just don’t say stuff like that to a Republican audience during a debate. Whatever I may think of Trump, I’ve gotta give him points for moxie.
Jeb, looking like a high school nerd who’d just been hit by a bully’s spitball, tried to defend his brother’s actions during the debate, lauding Dubyah for “building a security apparatus to keep us safe.”
Trump picked up the “keep us safe” mantra like it was an old chair and smashed it against the wall. “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe,” Trump said. “George Bush had the chance (to stop al Qaeda, pre 9/11) and he didn’t listen to the advice of the CIA.”
Bush fans in the audience duly booed, but, again, Trump was right. It has long been documented that the CIA, in its Daily Briefs to President Bush in 2001, rang the bell about al Qaeda’s imminent intentions on May 1, June 22, June 29, June 30 (“Bin Laden Threats Are Real”), July 1, July 24 - and, most infamously, on Aug. 6 (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S.”), which warned of a potential New York attack with hijacked planes. A CIA briefer flew to Texas that day to stress the threat in person. That’s when Bush reportedly responded with my favorite gem of all time (imagine if Obama had ever said something like this): “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”
Longtime GOP strategist Curt Anderson said: “Everything we know about political strategy suggests that Trump’s decision to attack George W. Bush will backfire.” But what’s happening this year reminds me of screenwriter William Goldman’s quip about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
These establishment Republicans may well discover, in the Saturday balloting, that Trump’s voters (a hefty, potentially winning share of all voters) are fine with their candidate dissing Dubyah so vociferously. They don’t cleave to conservative orthodoxy. Some of them realize that the Iraq war went wrong; some of them know about the pre-9/11 warnings; and, just as likely, a lot of them simply don’t care one way or the other. Because they’ve moved on, because they generally feel betrayed by the party establishment, because they’re simply stoked by Trump’s ire, because they dig his style.
So what we’re watching in South Carolina is a party in the throes of sorting out its identity crisis. If Trump parlays populist anger into a decisive victory, smashing the traditional GOP paradigm and breaking the Bush dynasty, then we may be witnessing the birth of a new GOP - and the furtherance of a frontrunner who will be tough to stop.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org