By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009
Six months after George W. Bush, the man, quietly decamped to a Dallas suburb, George W. Bush, the political symbol, has come out of retirement.
Convinced that Americans still hold Bush responsible for the nation's economic woes -- and will show more patience with Democratic policies if reminded of their dissatisfaction with the eight years of his presidency -- Democratic candidates have stepped up efforts to link GOP opponents to Bush, repeating a strategy that helped them take over Congress, the White House and a number of state offices in the past two election cycles.
In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds has pounced on statements by Republican Robert F. McDonnell indicating that Bush's tax cuts were good for the economy in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Bush name has littered Deeds's statements in the past week.
"Let's be clear: George Bush is responsible for our economic problems," Deeds said recently when asked an unrelated question about the record of the state's sitting Democratic governor. "We are more than happy to compare their records."
Likewise, in New Jersey, the only other state with a November gubernatorial election, Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) has been running ads that tie his Republican opponent, Christopher Christie, to Bush. With President Obama at his side last month, Corzine warned against handing over New Jersey's statehouse to the "same people who failed so miserably in the White House."
And last week, the Democratic National Committee released ads targeting four Republican members of Congress whom they accuse of blocking Obama's agenda, tagging the group with backing Bush policies that created the recession. "They broke it," the ad says. "Now they refuse to fix it."
The strategy is aimed at defusing Republican attacks on Obama's administration by refocusing attention on how unhappy people were when Bush was in charge. And in New Jersey and Virginia, it is designed to recapture the electoral enthusiasm that brought Democrats victory last year.
The two states will serve as a testing ground to see whether candidates can still turn elections into a referendum on the Bush years. If successful, it is a playbook likely to be used again for the 2010 congressional elections and beyond.
"One of the benefits of being in the minority is you get to sit on the sidelines and throw stones," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "We as a party need to remind people of their record when they were in power."
Republicans insist that voters have already shifted responsibility for the economy to Democrats, who control Congress and the White House. They say that Bush has lost his potency to excite voters and that running against his record again is a trap that will lead voters to conclude that Democrats do not have plans for the future.
"I'm sure what happens is they sit around the table and poll George Bush and find that he's still unpopular," said Phil Musser, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a political strategist. "Shocking! But it's a tired argument that reflects an old playbook. Didn't America just vote to change the negative politics of the past?"
The Deeds campaign believes McDonnell has made Bush relevant again through comments suggesting that he would be guided by the economic philosophies that drove Bush to cut taxes in the early part of this decade.
In late June, McDonnell, a former attorney general, told an audience that Bush's tax reductions were "followed by an unprecedented period of economic recovery and economic growth" that by 2006 had "almost overheated" the nation's markets.
"I think that's the way you stimulate business," McDonnell said. "And that's the kind of governor that I'm going to be, to reduce those impediments to entrepreneurship, to let small businesses grow and thrive and create some opportunity."
Add those comments to McDonnell's record as a member of the House of Delegates -- where he opposed budgetary policies advanced by Gov. Mark Warner (D), now a U.S. senator and the most popular political figure in the state -- and the Deeds camp believes it has a powerful argument that Virginians cannot trust McDonnell to manage state government in a recession.
"People remembered the disastrous era of Herbert Hoover, and Democrats successfully ran against him for a long time," said Deeds's campaign manager, Joe Abbey. "Even in the era of Facebook and Twitter, people remember six months ago."
Rather than backing off his embrace of Bush tax cuts, McDonnell reaffirmed his praise for Bush's handling of the economy during his first years in office when he met Deeds in their first debate a little more than a week ago. He insisted that freeing business from government regulation is the way to spur growth.
But a spokesman notes that McDonnell has criticized Bush for failing to curb federal spending. McDonnell was also a critic of No Child Left Behind and a Bush-era Energy Department policy, seeking to dictate power line placement to states, that met bipartisan opposition in Virginia.
McDonnell has also praised Obama's education platform even as he has tried to saddle Deeds with Obama's push for health care reform, limits on greenhouse emissions and the federal stimulus spending, all of which McDonnell believes make Virginians uneasy.
"I don't think anyone would disagree that you don't get into an economy like this one without mistakes being made by both parties," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "I wish we had the luxury to stand around and debate who's to blame. But I don't think Virginians have time for it."
Indeed, according to a July poll in New Jersey by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, only 10 percent of those surveyed felt it was fair for Corzine to attack Christie as being too close to Bush, while 77 percent said Corzine should focus on state issues.
"You remember Bush? He used to be president? Now he's a guy who lives in Texas," said Maurice Carroll, director of the institute. "I just don't know if it's going to work."
But Bush has hardly dropped from the headlines, as new revelations about his administration emerge almost daily. The goal in the two state races, Democrats say, is to use Bush's policies to draw an analogy as to how Republicans would govern on local issues.
And, if it works, Bush will be back for the congressional midterm elections next year.
"If the two Democrats win governor's posts by attacking George Bush, you better believe you'll see a lot of it in 2010," said national Democratic strategist Tad Devine. "These races are real-world laboratories, to a very real extent. If, in fact, we see Democrats lose, that could be the end of Bush bashing."