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Bush Is Back, At Least In Campaign Rhetoric

President Barack Obama listens as former president George W. Bush speaks in January.
Brendan Smialowski
Getty Images
President Barack Obama listens as former president George W. Bush speaks in January.

When Sen. John Cornyn recently suggested that there is a growing "fondness" for President George W. Bush's administration and his fellow Texas Republican, Rep. Pete Sessions, said his party should go back to the "exact same agenda," Democrats pounced.

And many Republicans cringed.

Cue spooky music, an insistent drum beat and repeated clips of Sessions intoning "exact same agenda," and voila: the Democratic National Committee had an insta-video that attempted to put Bush front and center in a hard-fought campaign season.



"Sessions and Cornyn didn't do us any favors," says Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican state chairman and member of the party's national committee.

"Democrats," he said, "are understandably taking advantage of a poor articulation of the Republican position this week."

Cornyn and Sessions head their party's respective national Senate and House election campaign committees.

However, the question of whether Democrats can, as they did in 2008, successfully link GOP candidates with the unpopular former Republican president and his policies remains very much open.


Still A Bush Effect?

Bush, who left office with the lowest approval ratings in modern history, has stayed studiously out of the public eye since he retired to Texas. He has largely eschewed speeches and has been absent on the stump, unlike former President Bill Clinton, the Democrats' big-gun campaigner.

Recent polls show that less than a third of Americans view Bush favorably, about the same as when he left office -- despite Cornyn's suggestion that there is blooming nostalgia for the Bush years.

But in the weeks leading up to November's midterm elections, Bush will be in the news more than he has since President Obama took office.

He has written a memoir, Decision Points, the first excerpts of which are expected to be available in mid-October. And ground will be broken in November for his presidential library at Southern Methodist University.

Democratic strategists like Karen Finney say that publicity surrounding the book provides an opportunity to invoke Bush and his policies, and have it resonate with voters by linking Republicans still in office with those policies.

Cornyn and Sessions simply jump-started that opportunity.

"There's a way to do it," Finney says. "One of the things that's been pretty consistent over the course of the last two years is that voters don’t blame Obama for the nation's problems -- they blame Bush policies."

"George Bush is not on the ballot," she adds, "but I do think that Republicans are very afraid of the 'Bush Republican' moniker."

Past Vs. Future

Washington lawyer and lobbyist Charlie Black knows what it's like to make a case for a Republican candidate post-Bush: He was a top adviser to GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign against Obama.

Black scoffs at the notion that a blame-Bush-Republicans strategy two years into the Obama administration -- and four years after Democrats won control of Congress -- will have much effect in an election season that looks increasingly difficult for Democrats.

"It might get a few people off their butts who have been disenchanted with Obama," Black says. "But to voters, politics is not about the past, it’s about the future."

"It's going to be very hard for Democrats to provide distractions from the fact that people are upset and disgusted over unemployment and Washington's spending," he said.

GOP strategist John Feehery agrees: "George Bush is old news. This election is a referendum on Barack Obama."

Wanted: GOP Agenda

Democrats have consistently painted Republicans as members of the "party of no" and as lacking a vision -- which made criticisms of Sessions' "exact same agenda" line reverberate.

But Anuzis says that though he believes both Sessions and Cornyn should have been able to articulate at least some specific GOP positions -- perhaps on spending and health care coverage and its costs -- they are, as national re-election leaders, in a somewhat difficult position.

"They're not speaking to their specific districts, or to a state -- they are speaking across lines," Anuzis says. "When you try to give an answer that fits a lot of people, it's not a very good answer."

He says that outside the Beltway, Republican candidates in their home states and districts are speaking specifically about what they would do.

In Michigan, for example, he says GOP candidates are talking about cutting costs by changing the way state employees are provided benefits, and challenging labor law that makes payment of union dues a condition of employment.

National Republican leaders have promised a national party agenda by Labor Day.

"Everybody knows that's in plenty of time," says Black, the McCain adviser. He points out that the Contract with America, "which in 1994 had a good and unifying effect," wasn't unveiled until Sept. 25 of that year.

That was the year Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and won a majority in the Senate as well.

Book Blowback

Politically speaking, the release of the Bush memoir near the election obviously isn't a benefit, Anuzis says.

"Again, Republicans haven't done a good job articulating that there are things done during the Bush administration that we didn't agree with," he said. "We have to be willing to stand up and say, 'We did make mistakes.' "

But one thing the book may do, some GOP strategists say -- with fingers crossed -- is to remind voters of the difficult choices faced by Bush post-Sept. 11.

Still, says Feehery, though the "election is not about George Bush," it would have been preferable for the former president to release the tome at a later date.

"Right before Christmas," Feehery suggests. "It would make a nice stocking stuffer."

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