Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Could Learn Something From George W. Bush

President George W. Bush, alongside (from left to right) President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, during the dedication ceremony for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, on November 18, 2004. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell

It will be a while before we know for if Hillary Clinton's Democratic National Convention did much to change the dynamics of her close contest with Donald Trump. But the gathering this week in Philadelphia is in many ways a reminder of how much has changed since 2000, when Republicans descended on this city to nominate George W. Bush.

Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and only reached the White House after the Supreme Court stopped a recount ordered by Florida's high court. The new president won the Sunshine State by only 537 votes. Though his campaign is largely remembered for this narrow, controversial victory (and his presidency for the two wars that later ensued), Bush's effort in Philadelphia was a model of how to expand the Republican base.

Democrats dismissed his "compassionate conservative" message as mere window dressing on old Republican ideas. But Bush broke with his party in key respects. He took on the Republican-controlled Congress, insisting he wouldn't "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." (Bush never balanced the budget at all.) He also made no effort to abolish the Department of Education—a familiar call among GOP stalwarts since the department was formed in the 1980s. In office, he greatly expanded its role through the No Child Left Behind Act. Today, that law is now much maligned by left and right, but it enjoyed bipartisan support at the time and helped redefine Bush as a different kind of Republican.

At their 2000 convention in Philadelphia, Republicans made it a point to reach out to immigrants, a theme echoed by the nominee in his acceptance speech. "The largest lesson I learned in Midland still guides me as governor of Texas," Bush said. "Everyone, from immigrant to entrepreneur, has an equal claim on this country's promise. So we improved our schools dramatically for children of every accent, of every background." No wonder The New York Times said of the centrist acceptance address: "Mr. Bush deftly elbowed aside ardent conservatives to convince America that his party was much like himself—approachable and open—and that he is a candidate who can be trusted to safely lead the nation." That fall, Bush won 34 percent of the Hispanic vote, and he would go on to win 44 percent in 2004. Trump has polled as low as 14 percent among Latinos.

What a difference 16 years make. After two wars, a financial crisis and a Tea Party insurgency, the GOP is not the party it was in Philadelphia. Bush's presidency ended disastrously (his popularity was so low he stayed away from the 2008 convention), and the Republican Party has now turned to Donald Trump and his "America First" ideology. Trump has not only viciously criticized Bush for 9/11 and the war in Iraq, he's calling for a massive, expensive wall on the southern border and his platform applauds states that repeal the central tenets of Bush's education plan.

Yet today's GOP should remember that Bush's brand of conservatism won, and it's not clear that Trump's insurgent platform can do the same. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and Clinton's party could easily add another to this tally.

Democrats face their own challenges, and they could learn from Bush's campaign as well. (Or perhaps more palatable for Dems is Bill Clinton, who in 1992 similarly remade the party.) While President Obama's speech pivoted to the center—it was flush with encomiums to Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt—much of the convention has been about appeasing the Bernie Sanders left. On immigration, the Democrats have called for allowing greater numbers of would-be citizens to enter the country. Their platform calls for limiting deportation and allowing more lenient family unification. Yet according to a Gallup poll last year, only 25 percent of Americans want to expand immigration and a plurality wanted to keep it at its present level. Trump may have painted an image of America so dark that it's hard to recognize. But the nation described by the Democrats—in which there's no downside to gun control, curbing the production of coal or expanding immigration—may be unsettling to voters in pivotal states such as Pennsylvania.

Of course, the political world of 2000 isn't the political world of today. The parties are more polarized, and pollsters say fewer voters can be persuaded from their entrenched partisan positions. Which is perhaps one reason why neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to get the convention bounce they have in years past. If one of them does, it's likely to be the Democrats, since more Americans have tuned into their sunny, celebrity-studded convention than the dystopian affair they saw in Cleveland. (Katy Perry vs. Scott Baio? Good Lord.)

But looking past the convention toward November, a sizable number of voters still haven't made up their minds. To win them over, whether in the debates or on the ground, both Clinton and Trump could perhaps learn something from a man whom neither seems to admire: George W. Bush.