George W. Bush was rarely heard from during his final months in office. Hideously unpopular, and never personally interested in policy matters, he did his best to stay out of the limelight. Even as his administration took repeated, drastic policy measures—nationalizing AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, requesting $700 billion in TARP funds, etc.—to deal with the unraveling of the global financial system, he lurked in the bankground and left the sales job up to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. But now Bush is back, with a speech delivered yesterday to the Economic Club of Southwest Michigan.
Though the former president remains buried in ignominy, he can console himself with the fact that the GOP seems to have implicitly decided that they just can't quit Bush.
It's a pretty obscure gig for a guy who was, until recently, the leader of the free world. But the truest sign of how low Bush has sunk is the scant esteem in which he's held by his ideological fellow-travelers. Indeed, for a while conservative leaders decided to be cute and define themselves entirely in opposition to Bush. Thus in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), Newt Gingrich derided "Bush-Obama continuity in economic policy, which is frankly a disaster for this country."
This never made a ton of logical sense. But it was emblematic of the fact that as a political necessity, Republicans were moving beyond Bush. And there were at least some signs that they were doing it on a policy level, too. Today, however, though the former president remains buried in ignominy, he can console himself with the fact that the GOP seems to have implicitly decided that they just can't quit Bush.
Consider that just a little while back progressive groups were involved in a massive struggle to try to convince people that four years of a John McCain administration would represent four more years of Bushism. It was hard work! McCain had a different record from Bush's on tax cuts and campaign finance. What's more, McCain had broken with Bush over the crucial issue of climate change and said he supported the idea of a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. McCain was against torture and for the closing of Guantanamo Bay. And while in all those stands he was a somewhat unusual Republican, he wasn't a lone Republican. On every heresy he had some allies within the party. And beyond the party, he had allies in the broader movement. A March 28, 2008 David Brooks column in The New York Times looked at McCain's thinking on foreign policy and argued that "Anybody who thinks McCain is merely continuing the Bush agenda is not paying attention."
And, indeed, though Obama won the election, the effort to tar McCain with the Bush brush didn't work very well. In the final Newsweek poll before the election, 50 percent viewed McCain favorably and 44 percent unfavorably and other polls were similar. Voters, in other words, liked McCain; they just liked Obama better. Meanwhile, everyone hated George W. Bush. Even Republicans. Throughout the presidential primary, a varied cast of characters competed to claim for themselves the mantle of Reagan; absolutely nobody wanted to say they were running as Bush's successor.
But with Bush emerging to public view, it's becoming clear that over the course of the four month-long Obama administration, the GOP has turned back around and covertly re-embraced the Bush legacy.
Consider, for example, the first real political success of the Obama Era Republican Party—the campaign of demagoguery that got people sufficiently scared of the idea that terrorists might somehow break out of a super-max prison (note that nobody has ever done this) and wreak havok on the American public that the Senate voted nearly unanimously to rebuff Obama's request for funds to transfer prisoners currently being held at Guantanamo Bay to a facility in the U.S. Somewhat paradoxically, this was not among the Obama administration's most controversial proposals. Instead, by the end of the Bush administration a great many Republicans agreed with Obama that Gitmo had become an international embarrassment and needed to be closed. But by suddenly flopping back to the Bush position, Republicans caught the administration under-prepared and came away with a score.
Similarly, while Obama seems to have a good chance of getting his way on health care, where leading Republicans have always disagreed with him, the odds of getting a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate look dim. And yet, nine months ago the crucial area of climate legislation appeared to be one of those topics on which many Republicans were prepared to move beyond Bushism. Indeed, the inevitability of a cap-and-trade system was once widely touted as a measure likely to be implemented irrespective of the outcome. But earlier this month McCain cryptically Twittered that the proposal "appears to be a cap & tax bill that I won't support."
And McCain's colleagues appear to agree. The Senate Republican caucus currently contains no visible advocates of action on climate change, a striking switch from where they were at the end of the Bush years.
Still, even as Republicans have begun to wed themselves more tightly to the substance of Bush's legacy, the man himself still gets no respect. These days, when Dick Cheney gives a speech it makes headlines, dominates cable news, and gets hailed by Bill Kristol as Obama's most serious political opponent. Bush speaks and he gets an AP article by a local Michigan-based correspondent.
It seems a little cruel of conservatives. Over at National Review's blog, The Corner, the Return of Bush was not so much as mentioned. It would be one thing if the right was snubbing the man because they'd decided to abandon his policies, but now more than ever they've committed themselves to defending his legacy; they might as well show the man some respect.
It's enough to almost make you feel sorry for the guy. And then you remember his presidency and just hope he never shows his face again in public.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.