George W. Bush: The GOP’s forgotten man

By Michael A. Cohen
November 22, 2011

The former president has only been mentioned by GOP candidates 19 times in 10 debates. Why?

By Michael Cohen
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are a lot of words you can expect to hear at tonight’s Republican debate in Washington, D.C. – “apologist,” “exceptionalism,” maybe “Uz-beki-beki-stan.” But here are two words you are almost certainly not going to hear – “George Bush.”  Two years and ten months ago a two-term Republican President departed office. Today those seeking his former job are loath to mention him.

I reviewed the transcripts of the first 10 Republican presidential debates and could find only 19 references by a candidate to Bush – four offered tepid applause, five were downright negative and the rest were offered in passing or referenced Bush’s tenure as Governor of Texas and his positions as a candidate in 2000.  Criticisms ran the gamut, from Bush’s support for government bailouts; his hiring of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve; and his lack of ardor in isolating Iran.

But even when sticking up for the former President, there were caveats. For example, Mitt Romney, in offering support for government bailouts deemed “essential” to preventing a “complete meltdown of the financial system,” had this to say about the deeply unpopular policy: “Was it perfect? No. Was it well-implemented? No, not particularly. Were there some institutions that should not have been bailed out? Absolutely. Should they have used the funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler? No, that was the wrong source for that funding.”  Rarely has praise been so qualified.

The only contender to speak warmly of Bush was the man who is holding his former job – Texas Governor Rick Perry. Yet as quickly as Perry had kind words for Bush he just as soon made clear his policy differences over the prescription drug benefit for Medicare and No Child Left Behind (which Huntsman also criticized) – renewing a long-standing policy rift that has developed between the two men.

The distancing of GOP contenders from Bush is not necessarily surprising.  While Bush’s favorability ratings have improved since he departed the White House, there’s no escaping the fact that by January 2009 he was one of the most unpopular persons to ever hold the office. A CBS News poll pegged his final approval rating at a mere 22 percent.  According to Gallup, his average rating across his second term was a woeful 37 percent. Even today, in the face of continued economic stagnation a majority of the country blames Bush and not President Obama for the country’s current economic problems.

Yet, what is perhaps most interesting about the collective amnesia that GOP wannabes have shown about the former president is that it’s not just the man they want no connection to – it’s his policies.

The candidate’s policy preferences reflect a stern rejection of many of Bush’s positions. In 2004, Bush pushed through legislation to extend prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients; today even the most supposedly moderate GOP aspirant, Jon Huntsman, supports a budget plan endorsed by Congressman Paul Ryan that would privatize Medicare.

Throughout much of his second term Bush was an evangelist for democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East. Yet, in the recent national security debate GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich blasted the Obama Administration for siding with pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt rather than the Mubarak government. Both Bachmann and Cain have complained that going to war in Libya – in support of an anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy rebel movement – was not in the US national interest. (In fairness, this is as much an anti-Obama position as it is an anti-Bush one) Ron Paul, ironically, had kind words not for President Bush’s foreign policy, but rather candidate Bush’s advocacy on the campaign trail in 2000 for a foreign policy of restraint and even humility.

And it’s not just foreign policy. With the exception of Rick Perry, the GOP candidates have exorcised the position taken by Bush in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants. One can directly trace Perry’s fall from frontrunner status to the moment when he criticized those who would take away in-state tuition for illegal aliens as not having a “heart.”

This refutation of Bush is at pace with repeated statements from congressional leaders, including from House Speaker Boehner, that during the Bush years, “Republicans lost their way on fiscal responsibility.”  Perry, in particular, has complained that big government “bingeing” began in the Bush Administration, which “turned a blind eye to undisciplined domestic spending.”

As Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at National Review recently noted, the view that appears to animate Republicans more than any other about the Bush presidency is not that the party moved too far to the right in its ideological leanings; rather that it didn’t move far enough. To listen to the GOP contenders is to believe that the Bush years reflected decisive straying from the party’s ideological roots. (Never mind that even in the supposed halcyon days of Reagan the GOP was defined as much by pragmatism as it was by ideological purity.)

This might seem odd to more impartial observers of the ‘00s who might gently note that the Bush years reflected a cultural, social, regulatory and, on the tax side, a fiscal conservatism more hard-edge than any before seen in American history But it’s at pace with the growing rightward turn of the Republican Party, which in the last two years has taken up residence on a locale of the American political spectrum previously uninhabited. (Considering the current unpopularity of the Republican Party, perhaps for good reason.) All of this suggests that if GOP should win back the White House in 2012, all but the most conservative of voters may look back wistfully on the Bush years and the kinder, gentler Republican party that governed the United States.

Photos: Former U.S. President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush watch Game 1 of the MLB American League Championship Series baseball playoffs between the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. REUTERS/Hans Deryk GOP candidates stand on stage at the CNN Western Republican debate in Las Vegas, Nevada. REUTERS/Richard Brian.

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