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A Contrast in Styles as Trump, Country Bid Farewell to George H.W. Bush

41st president’s 1992 defeat could offer lessons for 45’s expected re-election bid

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump pay their respect at former President George H.W. Bush's casket in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump pay their respect at former President George H.W. Bush's casket in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The late President George H.W. Bush will leave the Capitol for the final time Wednesday morning and make one last pass by the White House before his flag-draped casket is placed at the front of the National Cathedral for his state funeral farewell. Seated a few feet away will be a very different president, Donald Trump.

The late Republican president’s four years in office and 1992 defeat to an upstart Democratic governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, offer contrast to the incumbent’s raucous two years and lessons for his expected re-election bid. The two presidents’ work with Congress and legislative histories differ sharply, as do how they comported themselves — from Bush’s thoughtful letter-writing to Trump’s off-the-cuff tweeting.

“As history records, during those years he set the standard as a sound counselor and loyal adviser to an outsider who came to Washington, D.C., to shake things up, to cut taxes, rebuild the military. And together, they did just that,” Vice President Mike Pence said Monday of Vice President Bush and President Ronald Reagan as Bush’s flag-draped casket arrived to lie in state Monday in the Capitol Rotunda.

As far as policy agendas go, Pence could have been talking about himself and Trump. In fact, he has used very similar language when describing the Trump administration’s goals.

White House aides have acknowledged Trump came to Washington without much knowledge of or experience in working with members of Congress. That’s one reason why, other than an anti-opioids bill, he has yet to broker a major bipartisan deal or sign such legislation into law.

Watch: George H.W. Bush Lies In State in the Capitol Rotunda

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[Capitol Welcomes George H.W. Bush to Rotunda for the Last Time]

The opposite was true for the former chief executive who will be laid to rest Thursday in College Station, Texas.

“George H.W. Bush knew Congress. He was a congressman. He did congressional briefings as the CIA director. Bush was the rare combination of politician and statesman,” said Barbara Perry, who studies the U.S. presidency at the University of Virginia.

Washington outsiders, including the sitting president, have come to the Oval Office after declaring, “I’m not going to get dragged into the muck,” Perry said, and “they quickly learn they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Whereas Trump — as he did Tuesday morning — often lashes out at congressional Democrats with frustrated tweets, the 41st president “liked working with Congress.”

Trump’s biggest legislative achievement was a tax overhaul measure that also ended the 2010 health law’s individual insurance mandate and opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy extraction. It passed with no Democratic votes in either chamber.

But Bush worked with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, for instance, on the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. It passed that chamber with 91 senators supporting it on the floor; the result was also bipartisan in the House, with 377 members voting “yes.”

Some Democratic lawmakers see another difference: How the two presidents comported themselves while occupying the Oval Office.

“[Bush] embodied the characteristics we admire in a president: integrity, civility, dignity, humility, and a sincere interest in bipartisanship. He valued public service and had respect for government as a noble force — a force for good,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Monday before he and McConnell placed a wreath beside his casket as it sat on the catafalque first built after the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.

“When he wanted to say something to someone, he’d sit down to write them a handwritten and usually heartfelt note,” Schumer said of Bush. “He used the word ‘friend’ often, and when he said it, he meant it. His yearning for a kinder, gentler nation seems more needed now than when he first called for it.”

Notably, Trump will not say a word at the National Cathedral state funeral service on Wednesday, a rarity for a sitting president.

Some of the similarities between the 41st and 45th presidents offer lessons as Trump moves beyond a bruising midterm election and begins building his re-election bid, experts say.

[Uphill Path to Spending Deal as Pelosi, Schumer Meet With Trump]

One is the latter’s inability to hold together the political coalition that put him behind the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“The GOP coalition created in 1980 was built on tax cuts, military-spending increases, and cuts in domestic spending. The latter proved politically impossible, but the Republicans still cut taxes and increased military spending, yielding a massive budget deficit,” Jay Cost of the American Enterprise Institute said.

“This, in turn, divided the Reagan coalition by the 1990s: Conservative Republicans were still demanding spending cuts, while moderate Republicans and middle-of-the-road voters still opposed them,” Cost said. “If Bush had first been elected in, say, 1980, I think he would have been easily re-elected four years later.”

Trump has taken a similar path by slashing taxes and dramatically increasing Pentagon budgets — though his administration now is talking about federal budget cuts. Still, Trump’s own Office of Management and Budget and Treasury Department project the federal deficit will approach $1.1 trillion this year, with the Congressional Budget Office saying that, shy of changes to existing laws and spending plans, it likely “grows substantially over the next several years, stabilizes for a few years, and then grows again.”

But one longtime Washington budget- and deficit-watcher, Stan Collender, said economic forces might allow Trump to do what Bush couldn’t despite ballooning deficits.

“Even a rapidly rising, record-setting budget deficit will be no political match for the higher unemployment and lower stock markets that will come from an economic slowdown,” the former Senate Budget aide said. “Trump, who has already amply demonstrated that he’s OK with big deficits, won’t do anything to stop Congress from raising it even further, given that his own re-election will be jeopardized if the economy isn’t doing well.”

Although Trump might again defy history, Perry noted that most people remembering Bush’s time in office view it positively despite his missteps — like what she dubbed his “Clint Eastwood-like ‘no new taxes’ pledge” — and 1992 defeat.

“If it seems like hero-worship,” she said, “that’s probably because it’s being viewed through a lens focused on the incumbent.”

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