George H.W. Bush Was an Enemy of the Working Class

Rachel Johnson December 5, 2018

George H.W. Bush should be remembered as an architect of neoliberalism and a foot soldier for the ruling class. (ROBERT GIROUX/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1992, media reports claimed that then-pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush was amazed” at the sight of a gro­cery store scan­ner. While the claim has since been debunked, the encounter says a lot about his presidency.

Bush Sr., who died last week at the age of 94, appeared sus­pi­cious­ly wide-eyed about gro­cery scan­ner tech­nol­o­gy dur­ing a pho­to-op at a gro­cer con­ven­tion. The episode was used as evi­dence dur­ing Bush’s re-elec­tion bid that he hadn’t been gro­cery shop­ping since the 1970s when scan­ners were first introduced. 

Lat­er revealed to have been the prod­uct of a cre­ative mis­read­ing by the New York Times’ Andrew Rosen­thal (who hadn’t been present at the con­ven­tion), the farce — and the fact that so many at the time bought it — nonethe­less reveals a deep­er truth about his pres­i­den­cy: Bush Sr. was out of touch with the plight of work­ing and mid­dle-class Americans.

Bush was one of just five pres­i­dents in the 20th cen­tu­ry to lose a re-elec­tion cam­paign. In 1994, he lost to Bill Clin­ton, the upstart gov­er­nor from Arkansas, in the midst of a reces­sion that swept the nation dur­ing the ear­ly 1990s. Bush had failed to rec­og­nize the sim­ple tru­ism of Clinton’s cam­paign: It’s the econ­o­my, stupid.” 

But set­ting aside his rel­a­tive inac­tion dur­ing the reces­sion, Bush’s long record of sup­port­ing poli­cies that ben­e­fit the wealthy at the expense of aver­age Amer­i­cans cement­ed his lega­cy. He was no patri­cian states­man whose exam­ple can lead us out of our cur­rent dark times. Rather, he was a foot sol­dier for the rul­ing class who played a sub­stan­tial role in bring­ing us to where we are today. His role as a chief archi­tect of U.S. neolib­er­al trade pol­i­cy through ush­er­ing in the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA) helped to exac­er­bate glob­al inequal­i­ty and fuel the loss of over one mil­lion man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in the Unit­ed States and Canada.

The epit­o­me of priv­i­lege, the elder Bush descend­ed from a lin­eage of busi­ness­men who made their for­tunes in the defense and bank­ing indus­tries. His father, Prescott Bush, was direc­tor of Union Bank­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, which financed and prof­it­ed from the Nazi régime pri­or to the Amer­i­can entry into World War Two. George H.W., for his part, struck it rich in the Texas oil fields before turn­ing to politics.

From the begin­ning of his pres­i­den­cy, Bush built on the leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries of the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion, spear­head­ing wealth redis­tri­b­u­tion pro­grams ben­e­fit­ing the cor­po­rate class — and his own fam­i­ly. In 1989, Bush bailed out the heav­i­ly dereg­u­lat­ed Sav­ings and Loan indus­try, to the tune of about $124.6 bil­lion in tax­pay­er fund­ed mon­ey. The New York Times lat­er pub­lished a report detail­ing how Bush’s son Jeb had per­son­al­ly ben­e­fit­ed from the bailout, not­ing that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment paid more than $4 mil­lion to make good” on a loan Jeb had used to buy a Mia­mi office building.

Bush appoint­ed con­ser­v­a­tive judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, despite over­whelm­ing evi­dence that he had sex­u­al­ly harassed his staffer Ani­ta Hill. Thomas already had a long record as an ene­my of work­ing peo­ple of col­or. As chair­man of the Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion, Thomas played a key role in the agency’s shift away from class action cas­es that had sought com­pen­sa­tion for large num­bers of peo­ple and toward a nar­row­er focus on indi­vid­ual cas­es that addressed high­ly spe­cif­ic acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion. As the Women’s Legal Defense Fund observed at the time: the num­ber of cas­es filed on behalf of indi­vid­ual claimants increased under Judge Thomas, but at the expense of class action lit­i­ga­tion that can poten­tial­ly com­pen­sate hun­dreds and even thou­sands of indi­vid­ual vic­tims per suit.”

Thomas was a fierce crit­ic of affir­ma­tive action, stat­ing in 1987 that he believed such pro­grams cre­ate a nar­cot­ic of depen­den­cy.” On the bench, Thomas has proved to be a depend­able ally of busi­ness and a foe of work­ers, and has helped cement the con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty respon­si­ble for a full frontal assault on labor, includ­ing the recent Janus rul­ing that will deal a sub­stan­tial finan­cial blow to pub­lic sec­tor unions.

Bush also fought against rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. In 1989, he vetoed a bill rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $4.55 an hour. His own ver­sion of the Fair Labor Stan­dards Amend­ments which he signed into law that year, raised the min­i­mum to $4.25, sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than the orig­i­nal legislation. 

Bush’s great­est assault on labor rights came with the pas­sage of NAF­TA, which he spear­head­ed and signed just a month before he left office. The trade deal faced wide­spread resis­tance from pro­gres­sives and labor unions, but Bush’s com­mit­ment to neolib­er­al trade pol­i­cy was unbend­ing. In the Latin Amer­i­can Per­spec­tives essay NAF­TA and the Cor­po­rate Redesign of North Amer­i­ca,” Kim Moody explains that the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, backed by a num­ber of author­i­ta­tive think tanks and busi­ness orga­ni­za­tions, attempt­ed to mute oppo­si­tion to NAF­TA by pro­duc­ing an expert con­sen­sus that the agree­ment was a win-win solution.”

Accord­ing to Moody, the pro-NAF­TA stud­ies from think tanks like the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Com­mis­sion (ITC) and the Her­itage Foun­da­tion used an incred­i­bly flawed econo­met­ric mod­el that assumed con­di­tions like full employ­ment and no shifts of invest­ment from one coun­try to anoth­er. As orig­i­nal­ly report­ed in the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers’ Wash­ing­ton Report and cit­ed by Moody, the ITC even went so far as to pro­vide fake num­bers on auto job loss.

In Mex­i­co, NAF­TA coin­cid­ed with struc­tur­al adjust­ment pro­grams and mas­sive cuts to social wel­fare, result­ing in the pri­va­ti­za­tion of state indus­try, dis­place­ment of farm­ers, rise of con­sumer food prices and expan­sion of low-paid work. In the Unit­ed States, NAF­TA and oth­er free trade” appa­ra­tus­es like the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion con­tributed to pri­va­ti­za­tion and the decline of envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, jobs, wages, and work­ers’ rights. Along with off­shoring one mil­lion man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs from the Unit­ed States and Cana­da to Mex­i­co, NAF­TA bol­stered transna­tion­al cap­i­tal by lim­it­ing reg­u­la­tions and open­ing new mar­kets to pri­vate invest­ment, help­ing to enshrine cor­po­rate power.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s path to the White House rests in part on the work­ing-class mis­ery engen­dered by decades of neolib­er­al trade poli­cies. Dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, Trump ran on an anti-free trade plat­form. Rather than propos­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the entire exist­ing trade sys­tem, Trump told vot­ers he’d use his expert nego­ti­at­ing skills to secure a bet­ter deal” for them. He cast the blame for inequal­i­ty not on the greed of cap­i­tal, but on ille­gals” des­per­ate and eager to take away jobs away from Americans.

While Trump’s rhetoric is appalling­ly racist and his poli­cies have only ben­e­fit­ed the rich, his ascent — along with the rise of far right pop­ulism in Europe — helps illus­trates the extent of the dam­age dealt by Bush and oth­er archi­tects of neolib­er­al trade policy.

Many pun­dits are attempt­ing to divorce Bush H.W. Bush from Trump and use the late president’s mem­o­ry to invoke a kinder, gen­tler era of pol­i­tics. But Bush Sr. bears plen­ty of respon­si­bil­i­ty for the unciv­il world we live in today, and for the indig­ni­ties vis­it­ed on the work­ing class across the globe. 

Rachel John­son is a writer based in Chica­go. She holds a mas­ter’s degree in U.S. his­to­ry from North­west­ern University.
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