Both parties are bashing Bush, but their own weaknesses shine through
George W. Bush is living quietly in Dallas these days, far from Washington's political news cycle. He has traveled to Haiti, joined Facebook and written a memoir due out in November, after the midterm elections.
Yet, with less than three months before this fall's vote, it's almost as though he never left politics. Democrats have decided to try to win the midterms the same way they won in 2006 and 2008: by blaming any and all problems in the United States on Bush. And as Republicans around the country rally against government spending, even they are turning the ex-president into a convenient foil.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No. 3 Republican in the House and a potential presidential candidate, recently accused Bush of "runaway spending" that has escalated under President Obama. Former congressman Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate, has boasted of standing up to Bush on Medicare spending while in Congress. "I opposed President Bush when he wanted to expand and create a new entitlement program," Toomey said recently. "I opposed that. I opposed many of our spending bills."
The criticism is natural; after all, Bush left office with approval ratings in the 20s and 30s, some of the lowest for any president. But the renewed attacks illustrate shortcomings in both parties. They show a Republican Party that would seemingly rather criticize Bush and Obama than promote its own new ideas. And they point to a Democratic Party that doesn't appear to believe that its agenda is compelling to voters and simply hopes anti-Bush sentiment can help Democrats win one more time.
"When everyone is unhappy about the present, it only makes good political sense to blame the past," said Daniel Schnur, a political science professor at the University of Southern California and a former aide to Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential bid. Criticizing Bush "has the advantage of absolving both sides of responsibility for the current situation. Their hope is it will give them more credibility going forward. No one is going to believe what you are promising for the future if they believe you are responsible for the present."
Republicans started distancing themselves from Bush in earnest in 2006. With violence escalating in the deeply unpopular Iraq war, many GOP candidates opted not to have the president -- the man most closely associated with that conflict -- on the campaign trail for them. In 2008, the party's presidential nominee, McCain, sharply rebuked Bush for his lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina three years earlier.
Today, the Bush-bashing continues. On the GOP side, among congressional Republicans and conservative activists, it has centered on one issue: spending.
Having Bush to attack has been convenient for both groups. The "tea party" movement says its roots are in a rebellion against the Bush administration's increased deficits and bailout of Wall Street firms. This has allowed its members -- people who generally voted for Bush twice and then McCain in 2008 -- to cast themselves as independent from the GOP. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, need a way to establish their anti-spending bona fides to tea partiers and, at the same time, convince more mainstream voters that the GOP today is not the same party that supported Bush.
So for many Republicans, particularly those in states where the tea party is strong, their message is: Bush was a big spender, Obama is an even bigger one, and we will slash all of that spending if you give Congress back to us.
"One of the things we have to do is admit we were wrong, that we spent too much money," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), explaining the GOP's criticism of Bush. "I think that plays well with Republicans, because you're saying we spent more money, but you're also implying, 'I wasn't part of that.' "
Of course, dozens of congressional Republicans voted for the Wall Street bailout and other ideas opposed by the tea party, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. They acknowledge this but say Bush or the GOP leaders in Congress at the time demanded that they support those measures.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), part of the group of new GOP leaders who have dubbed themselves the Young Guns, said in a recent interview that many of his Republican colleagues were "backbenchers" during the Bush administration, though fellow Young Gun Eric Cantor (Va.), the Republican whip, was in the House leadership for much of Bush's tenure. Both men voted for the bank bailout.