By Perry Bacon Jr.
Sunday, August 15, 2010; B01
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.
Some conservatives argue that the main reason the GOP lost seats in 2006 and 2008 was excessive spending, though polls suggest that the real culprits were the Iraq war, ethics scandals and the financial meltdown. And most Republicans, as Democrats readily point out, still support many of the policies that helped increase the deficit, such as the tax cuts for most Americans and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's a lot of revisionist history going on," said John Feehery, a former top GOP aide on Capitol Hill. "There's an interesting discussion going on in the Republican Party about what they really stand for."
To woo their bases, both parties are smart to highlight their differences with Bush. Doing so links the Republicans with the tea party, and connects Obama and congressional Democrats with liberal activists who still hate the former president, even while they are sometimes disappointed with the current administration.
Among Republicans, there are some signs that attacking Bush works. Two of the GOP candidates who emerged from competitive Senate primaries, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Colorado's Ken Buck, castigated Republicans almost as much as Democrats for growing the government.
The attacks by Democrats are also bearing fruit; GOP officials and candidates are constantly being asked by reporters for their views on Bush. Not every Republican is down on the former president, and Democratic officials have gleefully noted comments such as a recent remark by Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), a longtime Bush ally, who said that "President Bush's stock has gone up a lot since he left office."
But the approach also illustrates both parties' struggles. The GOP's singular focus on spending and the alleged excesses by Bush and Obama has allowed Republicans to gloss over the fact that they don't have a governing vision to replace "compassionate conservatism." They have not collectively embraced the notion of cutting entire government agencies, as candidates such as Paul endorse, nor the specific ideas on issues such as Social Security and Medicare expenditures proposed by Ryan.
Instead, the post-Bush Republicans have offered a limited agenda of items such as ending earmarks.
For the Democrats, the Bush-bashing underscores that their party hasn't won a recent election without Bush as a scapegoat. As The Washington Post's Michael Shear noted this month, Democratic campaign ads this season feature the former president as an again-relevant villain. And as Janet Hook reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, "Congressional leaders are urging Democrats to focus less on bragging about what they have done -- a landmark healthcare law, a sweeping overhaul of Wall Street regulation and other far-reaching policy changes -- and more on efforts to fix the economy and on the perils of Republican control of Congress." In short, forget about the past two years, remember the eight before.
"The Democrats are bereft of positive arguments that are compelling to voters. The only thing they can do is blame Bush," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for former president Bill Clinton. "So you have this weird thing where the tea party people and Obama are agreeing [that] the problem to a greater or lesser extent is George Bush and the Republicans. I would argue this is very, very unhealthy for our political culture because no one is talking about real ideas."
From Bush's point of view, all this negative attention may not be such a bad thing. The criticism probably doesn't keep him up at night; as he has often said, he's not a man of regrets or indecision. And all the talk might even help him sell books. Whether it helps anyone win an election is an open question.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political reporter for The Washington Post.