So George W. Bush, reports Politico, is laying low these days, avoiding the spotlight that shone briefly on his father and his brother Jeb recently as they endorsed Mitt Romney’s candidacy. This whole subject of the post-Bush GOP and its relationship to No. 43 is pretty fascinating. Like a crazy, drunk uncle shooting an epileptic dog because he has fleas, the current GOP shuns him for all the wrong reasons. Since the GOP will presumably spend the next few months trying to pretend the man never existed, Democrats ought to remind people that he did. In fact, the Democratic Party should spend the next 20 years talking about Bush, turning him into the new Jimmy Carter and making the memory of those eight squalid years quadrennially fresh to everyone with living memory of them for as long as is humanly possible.
Bush, Politico notes, “is in a self-imposed political exile.” Perhaps predictably, Ari Fleischer pops up to note that that’s a lowdown dirty shame because Bush “kept us safe” through a perilous time and oversaw a booming economy in between two recessions. These claims aren’t even worth spitting out one’s cornflakes over, let alone rebutting. But merely as a point of information, people should know that the economy didn’t exactly boom from 2002 to 2008, except of course for the 1 percent of the population the policies were designed to aid. Bush’s job-growth record was the worst of any president going back to the Depression. The table you can see here goes back to Truman. Obviously, Roosevelt grew jobs at a fairly significant rate, since unemployment under him went from 24 percent to essentially zero during the height of the war. So you have to go back, I’d suppose, to Herbert Hoover to find someone who did worse than Bush’s .01 percent growth in jobs per year.
Yes, Obama’s jobs record is worse—for now. But at least in Obama’s case you have a guy who really did come into office at the start of a major recession, the worst in 80 years. Since the recession eased and ended, nearly 3.3 million jobs have been added—meaning that if he has a second term, he will in all likelihood leave Dubya eating some of that famous Texas dust. In any case, Americans still pin the shattered economy on Bush. A poll released only last week from CNN showed 56 percent blame Bush, while just 29 percent finger Obama.
The fact that we’re still clawing our way out of the darkness that Bush set upon us is the reason he is still relevant. Recently, Romney made him even more so, by insisting to an audience that it was Bush and Hank Paulson who actually saved the country from a depression. Beyond that, Romney’s campaign staff and advisers are so full of Bush people—on political strategy, the economy, foreign policy, and other areas—that one former Bush speechwriter (who is not on the Romney bus) has called it “a restoration of the Bush establishment.”
And yet, even as Romney makes those moves, which only about 2 percent of the population will know about, the party will obviously try to distance itself from Bush publicly. What in the world are they going to do with him at the convention? Ex-presidents are supposed to get nice speaking gigs. Will Bush? To say what? That we must let the free market work, the way it worked on his watch in September 2008? That we must be vigilant against the terrorists, the way he was while Osama bin Laden was living a few heaves of a baseball away from a Pakistani officer-training facility? That we must protect the homeland, as he did in New Orleans? It’s hard to imagine what kind of speech he could deliver. It wouldn’t be shocking if Bush is reduced (if he would accept) to some ceremonial function, some transparent and treacly soft-focus attempt to fool Latinos, since Bush was among that small handful of Republicans known not to actively hate brown people.
Democrats really need to keep Bush in the frame here. And Dick Cheney. I know everyone says “but elections are about the future.” Well, maybe. But the Bush years were so uniquely bad, so plainly and emphatically horrible on so many fronts for such a vast majority of citizens, that to fail to mention the era would just be missing a free whack. It would be the equivalent of someone trying to slag Halle Berry without mentioning Catwoman. Very often, people—especially Democratic people—overthink politics and worry too much about how people are going to react. But this one is simple. Bush really just stank up the joint for eight years. Mention him, and the pundit class might bray about it, but most people will react by thinking: Yeah, that guy really just stank up the joint for eight years.
I often wonder about what Bush himself thinks. Does he know, deep down, what a failure he was? He must. We all tell ourselves stories that try to put a good face on things. And any president or governor can come up with a list of good deeds accomplished, so maybe he leans on those, waiting patiently for the day when, because people’s memories are short and because some rich Texas buddies undoubtedly stand ready to pour millions into a PR-rehabilitation campaign when they sense the time is right, he can reemerge in the public eye, smirk intact, smiting Democrats like in the good old days of 2002. Democrats must make sure that that rehabilitation never, ever happens.