You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the year was 1985. Republican presidential hopefuls have been tripping over one-another to invoke Ronald Reagan’s name and cast themselves as his heir apparent. Hardly an opportunity is missed for candidates to fasten themselves to the Reagan legacy, trumpeting his two terms as a watershed moment in the history of the executive branch. Reagan, in the eyes of GOP aspirants, has become a saintly, sanitized figure—a vessel for myth-making in the absence of any clear conservative ideology.
Merely by associating themselves with The Great Communicator, the current crop of candidates strive to get the Reagan bump. Newt Gingrich leads the Reagan-citers, laying personal claim to the Reagan mantle and often taking credit for the former president’s achievements. Mitt Romney calls his proposal for a multinational trade agreement the “Reagan Economic Zone,” and more recently craftily deployed Reagan’s pro-choice to pro-life shift to shield his own flip-flop on the issue. And Rick Santorum argues that “Ronald Reagan was courageous enough to go out and speak out about the forces of evil not just around the world but… in this country,” to deflect criticism of his own assertion that Satan would want to attack the US.
While the fortieth president gets top billing, the Republican candidates’ immediate predecessor— another GOP two-term president— has been given the ultimate silent treatment. Completely shut out from discussion during the raft of presidential debates, George W Bush fails to register even a mention from the competing presidential crowd. The silence is deafening. Not even an elephant in the room, the former president instead has been relegated to the Invisible Man, his 8 years in office neatly expunged from the record.
What happened to the man who exited the White House only a few years ago? Meager approval ratings at his egress can’t fully account for why the party fails to mouth his name. After all Harry Truman dipped to the upper twenties when he left office in 1953 but was hardly forgotten by party members come next election time. Additional explanation should be given to the revolutionary Tea Partiers. No friends to the ballooning debt that defined much of the Bush years, the Tea Party’s smash the state rhetoric has made Bush’s military Keynesianism verboten policy. And indeed the disaster that is the Afghan war is something few candidates are ready to embrace.
But the invisibility of the 43rd president during this election season is troubling not only because George W Bush was his party’s most recent standard bearer. It is also that so many of the central issues of the current campaign directly relate to policies that Bush himself advanced. No-one would disagree that Republican candidates for the nomination might question Barack Obama’s handling of the economic crisis, but shouldn’t the debate questioners’ also ask the candidates to assess the man who presided over the meltdown’s onset? Is it not vital to understand how Republican contenders relate to Bush’s eight years in office? Do they champion any of Bush’s signature foreign and domestic policies whether the Bush doctrine, the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or Medicare Part D? How closely would a Romney or Santorum administration hue to the policies of the Bush presidency? Beyond a cursory discussion in the last debate about Rick Santorum’s 2001 vote in favor of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation (see also The American Prospect on this)—a decision he now disavows—or Romney’s return quip about Santorum’s vote for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” little has been articulated about the approval (or disapproval) ratings the candidates would assign to Bush. And in a surprise to all, especially because of their penchant for “gotcha” type questioning, the various anchors at the debates have thus far failed to pose the Bush question directly. It’s as if they are complicit with the candidates in trying to erase the recent past.
Bush himself won’t awaken this sleeping giant, complacent as he is with life outside the limelight. Unlike his own predecessor, Bill Clinton, Bush, as was generally presumed beforehand, is far more comfortable riding things out on the ranch rather than making any further marks on history. While elections can be choice opportunities for former presidents to make endorsements, campaign in states of contention, and make stirring speeches at conventions, Bush will more likely be in Crawford, Texas this August than in Tampa Bay.
To put Bush’s treatment in context, this isn’t the first time a party has been eager to distance itself from a previous office-holder. After Nixon’s resignation, the GOP was clear in its intentions to cut off any association with the fallen president. An early draft of the Republican Party’s 1976 platform praised Nixon’s China policy, but the reference was quickly excised. As a spokesman for Gerald Ford pointed out, “We’re trying to forget Richard Nixon, not memorialize him.” To avoid association with his predecessor Ford himself often referred to Nixon as “Lyndon Johnson’s successor.” But an ex-president didn’t have to suffer a scandal the size of Watergate to get the cold shoulder from his party. At the 1984 Democratic convention, still believing that Carter’s name called up images of defeat and incompetence, party leaders debated how to furnish Carter a minor role without banishing him wholly from the proceedings.
It’s likely that the eventual Republican nominee will continue running away from the Bush years come this autumn’s campaign, given that any proper revisionism of the Bush period still seems years away. Unlike Richard Nixon who actively sought to refashion himself as his party’s eminence grise and was later recognized for his contributions, George W Bush will be dependent upon others to burnish his legacy.
The question is whether President Obama will exploit the manifold neuralgic points of the Bush presidency. Obama’s fleeting interest in accountability including the decision not to prosecute those responsible for the financial crisis makes singling out Bush’s failings more complicated. But if Obama fails to remind voters of why America continues to languish economically, he just may not get another chance to rectify the wrongs of his predecessor.