While Dick Cheney’s been getting standing ovations, his boss has stayed in the right’s doghouse—until now. Benjamin Sarlin reports on 43’s unlikely surge of support at CPAC. Plus: Check out all our live coverage of CPAC.
How confident are Republicans in their electoral prospects this year? They're bringing George W. Bush back into the fold.
The former president, already the most broadly despised in modern times before the economic crisis, enraged his base in his final months by bailing out failing banks—leaving his party rudderless against a surging Democratic tide.
Speakers took shots at Bush throughout the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference and every Ronald Reagan reference seemed to consciously skip over the party’s more recent two-term president. "We had big spending under Bush and now we have big spending under Obama," Newt Gingrich said in a speech at the time. "And so now we have two failures." Mike Huckabee cited Hurricane Katrina's disastrous response. Mitt Romney faulted Bush’s economic plan.
“[Bush] is a fundamentally decent man with the hardest job in the world in the hardest time for our country,” said Andrew Breitbart.
Those days, it would appear, are gone. With Republicans confident of their chances in 2010 after a surprise victory in Massachusetts and largely united in opposition to Barack Obama, President Bush is making a comeback. To paraphrase Chris Rock: If last year's CPAC was Bush's funeral, then this year’s is Easter.
And Mitt Romney is leading the charge. Romney, the unsuccessful 2008 GOP presidential candidate who is eyeing another run in 2012, offered an extensive defense of Bush's record on the economy and national security in his CPAC speech Thursday.
"I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly," he said after noting Obama's attacks on the former president. "He pulled us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9/11, he overcame teachers unions to test schoolchildren 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."
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) got a round of applause by projecting an image of a Minnesota billboard featuring Bush with the caption "Miss Me Yet?"—just as reports surfaced that the online merchant CafePress was seeing an uptick in demand for items featuring such images.
• Live Dispatches from CPAC• Watch CPAC’s Most Outrageous MomentsDick Cheney, Bush’s veep, has been one of Obama’s most ferocious public critics. And he’s earned conservatives’ enthusiastic support for it; witness the thunderous ovation he received at the CPAC gathering in Washington when daughter Liz surprised the crowd by inviting him to the podium.
But Bush has been studiously silent on the fortunes of his successor in the White House. And the right has been almost as quiet about him. Until now—and the lifting of the unofficial ban on his name is long overdue, in some conservatives’ view.
"God bless Romney for doing that, I think it’s fantastic," Andrew Breitbart, who runs a number of news sites including Breitbart.com and Big Government, told The Daily Beast. "[Bush] is a fundamentally decent man with the hardest job in the world in the hardest time for our country."
Saul Anuzis, a former GOP Michigan chairman and prominent conservative activist, said the tone had shifted significantly from last year's CPAC.
"I think you see this across the board," he said, noting Cheney's enthusiastic reception. "When you compare [Obama's record] to what Bush actually did—I wasn't a big fan of running up the deficits and there are things I would have liked to see done differently. But we did govern differently as Republicans."
It's a reminder that for all of Bush's failings, he never lost a large chunk of his party's base. His final Gallup poll in office showed him with a 75 percent approval rating among Republicans—even as his overall approval ratings dropped below 30 percent during his last months in office.
But not everyone at CPAC is feeling the new outpouring of Bush love. Lewis K. Uhler, founder and president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, suggested that the 43rd president’s shortcomings needed to be acknowledged by his party before they could move on.
"I think now is the time for a realistic view of where we've been and where we must go," Uhler said. "And I don’t think there’s any question that the Bush administration neglected to send the signals that they were committed to fiscal responsibility... We have clear evidence that his failure to do that led to the '06 debacle followed by the '08 catastrophe. And I believe it's a serious question as to whether he should have allowed his Treasury secretary to engineer the bailouts."
Democratic leaders have renewed efforts to contrast the Obama administration's economic record with Bush's in recent weeks—circulating, for example, charts showing the pace of job losses under each president. CPAC's pro-Bush revival (and it's resultant video footage) could add fuel to the fire as they tie Republicans to the party's recent past.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.