Among GOP Contenders, Boos for Bush, Praise for Clinton

George E. Condon Jr.
National Journal

Rick Santorum should be excused for his startled look at the Arizona debate on Wednesday night. The audience was booing him. But not for some liberal apostasy, some act of support for a Democratic program. They were booing because he had voted for a Republican program, designed by a Republican president, tested in a Republican state, overwhelmingly supported by a Republican Congress and wildly cheered by Republican crowds in a Republican primary contest.

How could Santorum not be taken aback now that he is under attack for his vote for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001?

After the debate, Santorum tried to explain away the booing as the product of a crowd heavily weighted toward his rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But the reaction tells a much bigger story about the fight for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination than one candidate’s success in packing the crowd. It dramatizes how far former President George W. Bush has fallen in the estimation of today’s Republican Party.

The political reality today is that Newt Gingrich gets cheered by Republican audiences when he talks – as he often does – about being a partner with Democratic former President Bill Clinton and Santorum gets booed when he talks – rarely – about working with Bush. And the programs the candidates most love bashing are headlined by those championed by Bush well before Obama took office, including the Wall Street bailout, the federal rescue of the automobile industry, and No Child Left Behind.

The education bill that today is so controversial was anything but when it sailed through Congress 11 years ago. Its name came from one of Bush’s most-applauded lines in the 2000 campaign and from programs he had tested in Texas. And the priority he and the GOP gave it was reflected when it became HR 1 in the 107th Congress. Santorum tried to explain this in the debate.

“It was the principal priority of President Bush to try to take on a failing education system and try to impose some sort of testing regime that would be able to quantify how well we're doing with respect to education,” he said. “I have to admit I voted for that; it was against the principles I believed in. But, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake.”

As the boos grew louder, Santorum – who was the Senate Republican Conference chairman at the time of the vote – retorted, “You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you got to rally together and do something.”

That a member of the Senate GOP leadership would support a Republican president’s top domestic priority is anything but shocking. That he would have to defend it a decade later is shocking, because, at the time, the bill looked like a major bipartisan accomplishment.

Santorum certainly was not alone among Republicans at the time. The House passed No Child Left Behind on May 23, 2001, 384-45, with 185 Republicans voting for it and only 34 against. The Senate followed suit less than a month later, on June 14. The vote was a whopping 91-8; 43 Republicans – including Santorum – voted for it. Only six Republicans voted no. Amid all the self-congratulation at the signing ceremony Jan. 8, 2002, no one could have guessed at the startling turn that led to this week’s booing of Santorum, a reminder that one should be humble and cautious in making political predictions based on the good feelings of the moment.

Almost as startling is the readiness of Republicans to praise the Democratic president they impeached while scorning the Republican president they once backed. Perhaps nothing is a starker rejection of Bush’s brand of Republicanism than Romney’s recent self-description as a “severe” conservative. There is no more talk of the “compassionate conservatism” that carried Bush to two terms and drew political independents into his camp.

Part of the different treatment of Clinton and Bush is because one left office with a booming economy and a healthy surplus while the other left amid a near-depression and record deficits. In some ways, the 2012 candidates are only reading the polls. In November, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found far more voters blame Bush for the current economic mess than blame President Obama: 36 percent blame Wall Street bankers, 34 percent blame Bush, and 21 percent blame Obama. And in polling conducted March 8-14 for the Pew Research Center, Bush was viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of respondents, with only 42 percent viewing him favorably. In the same poll, Clinton was viewed favorably by more than 2-to-1 – 67 percent to 29 percent – a record high for the Democrat. That favorability even showed up among Republicans, rising from 16 percent in February 2008 to 40 percent.