Resurrecting W.: Why George Bush Still Matters in 2012

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Former President George W. Bush speaks during a portrait-unveiling ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 31, 2012

George W. Bush is gone from Washington — and sometimes the city seems to have forgotten him. For all the passions that he inspired, the 43rd President’s legacy has been absent from the 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney’s dog and Barack Obama’s college girlfriends feel like larger presences in this election season than the President who invaded Iraq, bailed out the banks and slashed taxes. Bush’s legacy was strangely absent from the Republican primaries, his name almost never mentioned in the countless debates. Romney seems allergic to Bush’s name, as though it could summon some kind of terrible curse. After Bush blurted a one-line endorsement of Romney from an elevator last month, Romney expressed his gratitude by cryptically referring to W. as Obama’s “predecessor”; his  spokeswoman made a generic reference to “the President.” Maybe that’s better than “whatshisname” — but not by much.

Not that Bush has actually been forgotten. Americans still remember W., just not very fondly. Last week, a CNN/ORC poll found that Bush is the least popular of the living ex-Presidents. His 43% favorability rating may be higher than it was in the darkest days of his presidency, when it bounced around in the mid-30s, but Bush is still less popular than Jimmy Carter, a man Republicans treat as a walking punch line.

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No wonder, then, that the Romney camp is loath to discuss Bush. More surprising is how infrequently Democrats have invoked Bush’s legacy. In 2008 Obama’s campaign harped on Bush so much that Sarah Palin complained they were “pretending they are running against our current President.” Today Obama often warns voters about GOP economic policies that “got us into this mess.” But he rarely if ever mentions Bush by name. And his remarks on Friday about the sputtering economy didn’t even include a reference to the former President’s policies.

Recently, however, some key party figures have sought to resurrect Bush’s controversial legacy. “How does Mitt Romney differ from George Bush?” Neera Tanden, an Obama ally and the president of the Center for American Progress, asked on NBC’s Meet the Press earlier this month. Romney’s policies “really do double down on the policies of the Bush Administration,” Tanden argued, saying Romney proposes to slash taxes for the wealthy with no credible plan to reduce the deficit.

Days later, the Democratic National Committee threw its punch at W., responding to an anti-Obama ad from the pro-Republican PAC American Crossroads by noting the group’s ties to Bush’s former political fixer Karl Rove. The ad’s criticism of Obama’s economic policies, DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told reporters, was “laughable coming from someone who bears responsibility for the problems that we’re facing today,” adding that “Romney’s [economic] plan is modeled after the same policies.” (On Friday, Woodhouse tweeted much the same point, saying Romney’s economic plan features “the same polices Bush/GOP followed which crashed our economy. Brilliant, huh?”)

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Asked about the relevance of Bush’s record to the current campaign, Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman who now runs the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, enthusiastically joined the chorus: “Romney wants to double down on the very policies that got us into this mess,” Burton said. “Romney’s vision is a triple dose of the same deficit-ballooning ideas that President Bush saddled our nation with. He would decimate Medicare and drive up our debt, all to cut taxes for the wealthy even more.”

Obama’s allies are invoking the B word when it comes to foreign policy too. After informal Romney adviser John Bolton last week assailed Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, former Obama Pentagon official Michele Flournoy fired back, “In 2003 John Bolton and other senior Bush Administration officials blew past diplomacy and rushed to war in Iraq.” An Obama campaign official told BuzzFeed that Romney is embracing the kind of “reckless neoconservative thinking” that produced the Iraq war. (Neoconservative, of course, being one of the more electrified epithets of the Bush era.)

To hear Romney’s campaign tell it, the Democratic effort to invoke Bush is backward-looking and a sign of desperation about Obama’s economic record. “The two names on the ballot are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney,” says Romney adviser Kevin Madden. “They can talk all they want about former President Bush. This election is about what’s wrong with our economy today and how Mitt Romney can and will do a better job than President Obama can when it comes to fixing it, so that tomorrow America can go back to work.” (Of course, Romney has taunted Obama at least twice by likening him to Carter.)

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But there could be smart strategy behind a focus on Bush. Democrats often cite polling showing that voters blame Bush at least as much as Obama for the state of the economy, a dynamic that political scientist John Sides argues has propped up Obama’s approval numbers. Given that they can’t blame Romney for the economy’s weakness (beyond their broadsides against Bain Capital), Democrats are eager to drive home that point. “The challenge for Romney is that the adoption of these unaffordable tax cuts place him to the right of President Bush — and those policies failed to create private-sector job growth,” says Tanden. “So raising these issues are really about tying Mitt Romney to a failed economic policy that didn’t work before and won’t work again.”

In 1996 Bill Clinton campaigned on the theme of “building a bridge to the future.” This year, Democrats may conclude that their fate depends on making a connection to the past.

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