Finessing the Bush factor



A number of 2012 Republican presidential aspirants are currently auditioning in front of a rapturous audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual Washington event known as CPAC. During the opening festivities yesterday, I was particularly struck by one appetizer in the red-meat speech served up by Mitt Romney. The key passage:

"I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly — he pulled us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9/11, he overcame teachers unions to test school children and evaluate schools, he took down the Taliban, waged a war against the jihadists and was not afraid to call it what it is — a war, and he kept us safe. I respect his silence even in the face of the assaults on his record that come from this administration."

Romney somehow managed to leave out of the part about how Bush turned a projected $800 billion annual surplus (that's from the Congressional Budget Office, in January '01) into a projected $1.2-trillion annual deficit, spending more lavishly than any president since LBJ; and the part about how he marched to war in the wrong country, the one that did not attack us on 9/11; and the part about how he did not take down the Taliban, as evidenced by the fact that our soldiers are still dying in that effort...but those piddling omissions were entirely intentional. Indeed, for any prospective Republican candidate, cleansing the Bush record is good politics.

It's a fact of life that the grassroots GOP is still heavily populated with implacable Bush loyalists who think the guy did a great job. No Republican can get nominated in 2012 unless he or she successfully nurtures the Bush wing of the party base. Defending Bush may be a loser strategy with most Americans - in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, Bush drew a 30 percent favorability rating; in the latest New York Times-CBS survey, a 31 percent plurality blames Bush for the bad economy, while only seven percent blame President Obama - but obeisence to the Republican Bushers comes first.

That might prove to be a subtle task, however - precisely because a lot of grassroots conservatives have been touched by the tea-party spirit, and those folks are well aware that the ruling Bush-era Republicans expanded big government and poured gallons of red ink on the federal ledger.

In other words, the Republican base is hardly monolithic. Some of its denizens are Bush loyalists who will feel most comfortable with a '12 candidate who cleanses the Bush record in the spirit of willful amnesia. But some of its denizens are tea-partiers who might prefer that the next Republican candidate be someone who can talk honestly about what they view as the Bush-era betrayals of conservative principle.

The next GOP nominee may well be the person who manages to bond with both factions within the base. This will require some rhetorical nuance, of course, but the cheapest and easiest route is to simply attack the opposition. As Romney demonstrated yesterday, nothing can unite the tea-partiers and the Bush loyalists more quickly than the recitation of a few Obama jokes. Or the coining of some new rhetorical agitprop ("liberal neo-monarchists"). Or, best of all, some brand new servings of rancid red meat (Obama's defense of his record, quipped Romney, is "the biggest exaggeration since Al Gore's invention of the Internet").

Here we go again, year 10: Gore never said he "invented" the Internet. Rather, he said that, while serving in Congress, he "took the initiative in creating the Internet" by helping to fund it - a claim long since confirmed by numerous technology specialists. But the lie that he had bragged about inventing the Internet became a standard laugh line in Bush's 2000 campaign stump speech, the Republican base still persists in believing it, and Romney's decision to recycle it yet again - as a bonding device - is clear evidence that he's in this nomination race to win it.