By Michael D. Shear
Sunday, August 8, 2010; A03
As they brace for difficult fall elections, dispirited Democrats hoping to get back some of that 2008 magic are turning to the president for inspiration.
President Bush, that is.
Grainy images of the former president flashed across the screen in a recent ad by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is attacking his GOP rival in a Senate race for his "advancement of the Bush agenda."
Even President Obama has begun taking direct shots at his predecessor, something he had been careful to avoid in recent months.
"They don't have a single idea that's different from George Bush's ideas -- not one," Obama said during speeches this week at fundraisers in Atlanta and Chicago.
In interviews, mailings and television ads, Democratic candidates are again hauling out the specter of the former president to use as a foil. Nearly two years after he left office and virtually disappeared from public view, Bush -- his image, his policies, his legacy -- are being dragged back into the public arena.
The strategy could backfire for Democrats, who risk appearing desperate by blaming Bush instead of taking responsibility. Former Bush strategist Karl Rove called it a "deadly street to go down" for Democratic candidates who have "no next act" to promote.
But Democratic strategists, from the White House down, say invoking the ex-president helps clarify their message: Republicans would return the country to a time of failed economic policies.
"God bless America that he's back in the conversation," said a senior Democratic official on Capitol Hill. "It's a blessing from the heavens. If this becomes a referendum on George Bush, we are in a much better spot than anyone could imagine."
Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history. His approval rating sank to the mid-20s as he struggled to respond to the near-collapse of the economy. Democrats think reminding voters about why they disliked Bush will translate into a boost in support.
There is even the hope circulating among some Democratic strategists that Bush's forthcoming memoir -- due out days after the election -- will leak to the press early, creating a flurry of Bush legacy stories in the run-up to the fall midterm elections.
"The reality is that people associate the Bush era as an economic failure," said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The question is, 'Do we move forward, away from those economic policies?' "
Republicans say the Democrats are attempting a rerun of their victories in 2006 and 2008 despite a very different political environment. And they predict that efforts to use Bush will fail for most of the Democrats this fall.
"The thing the American people want to hear is what are you for," Rove said. Instead, Democrats are saying that "what we've got to do is reach back to a distorted view of what was."
Dana Perino, Bush's last press secretary, called it "so sad."
"I don't think a lot of people are sitting around thinking, 'Gee, what would George Bush be doing?' " Perino said. "They don't care. They have a house they can't sell. They have a job they are worried about losing. All they hear is this whining and complaining and blaming."
Not surprising, Democrats don't agree with that assessment.
Bush's name appears prominently on the talking-point pocket cards that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed out to her Democratic colleagues as they headed home to campaign.
"Republicans are trying to take us back to the same failed Bush economic policies that cost us 8 million jobs," reads one suggested line of attack.
During a "Meet the Press" debate last month among the four lawmakers in charge of positioning the parties for the fall campaigns, Bush's name came up 30 times. And Democratic pollsters are encouraging candidates to frequently mention the 2001 "Bush tax cuts" for the wealthy.
"If Americans believe that there are two paths from which to choose: a clear Obama path or the Bush path, progressives will control the debate," said a memo by analysts at the Third Way, a liberal think tank that briefed Democratic senators at their summertime retreat on Martha's Vineyard last month.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who runs the GOP's Senate campaign committee, called that an implicit admission that Democrats are running away from the effects of their policies: 9.5 percent unemployment, growing deficits and an economy that is still struggling to recover.
"They are desperately trying to change the subject," Cornyn said. "People should scoff at it for the joke that it really is."