George W. Bush Candidates Seek Office in Fall Midterms
Obama’s Iraq speech helped put George W. Bush back in the headlines, amid signs of a rebound. Will ties to 43 help or hurt the Team Bush veterans seeking office this fall? Samuel Jacobs reports.
President Obama's nod to former President Bush in his Iraq speech Tuesday night ("No one could doubt [his] support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security") helped put W. back in the headlines, amid signs of a rebound. Will ties to 43 help or hurt the Team Bush veterans seeking office this fall? Samuel Jacobs reports.
George W. Bush is on the rebound. It's hardly a full-blown comeback, but the early signs are good for the Decider: White House successor, Barack Obama, called on Tuesday, in advance of an Oval Office speech in which 44 announced the formal end to combat operations initiated on 43's watch. And when Congress returns from its summer recess in September, debate over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts will be front and centera crucial part of ongoing efforts to jump-start a measly economic recovery. In one poll last week, residents of Louisiana said they thought Bush displayed better leadership during Hurricane Katrina than Obama did during the Gulf oil spill. And with buzz over his forthcoming memoir Decision Points to ramp up as voters head for the polls this fall, the Bush legacy is suddenly threatening to become a significant factor in the midterms.
How popular is Bush now? Administration veterans' resumes offer one measure, and it isn't a happy one. When you look at them, there's one obvious thing missing: Bush's name.
No one will feel the impact more than the handful of Bush administration alumni who will be on the ballot. But if they're confident the association with their former boss who left office with historically dismal approval ratings—will be an asset in November, they aren't showing it. Judging from their campaign rhetoric, those candidates are being extremely cautious about playing the Bush card.
• 12 Dirty, Sexy Scenes from Meghan McCain’s Book • Stephen L. Carter: Obama’s Iraq Speech Was Bush-Like The dangers are evident: a country angry over the Obama administration's aggressive government intervention into the markets and health care probably don't need the distraction of being reminded of some of his predecessor's faults. On the other hand, there may be an upside to touting the Bush credentials more aggressively, given the trend lines. " If you were to look at the change in the political temperature and even as you look at the Bush brand in the last 12 months, there is a case to be made where things have changed pretty dramatically," says Gary Marx, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.
• Michelle Goldberg: Glenn Beck Revives Mormons—and Maybe Romney • Mark McKinnon: What Obama Can Learn from Bush In Ohio, Bush's former budget director Rob Portman is pulling ahead in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. George Voinovich. In Connecticut, Tom Foley, part of the vanguard of MBAs sent by Bush to make over Iraq, is gunning for the governor's seat, being vacated by retiring Republican Jodi Rell. In Arkansas, a Karl Rove protege, Tim Griffin, looks ready to return to Washington, campaigning to replace yet another retiring Democrat in the state's 2nd Congressional District.
Dan Coats, Bush's ambassador to Germany, is running for the Senate in Indiana. According to The Daily Caller, John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations could have designs on the White House. If so, Bolton will have to get line behind some fellow Bushies. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, another Bush budget chief, is receiving conservative encouragement to mount a bid for president in 2012. And then there's the constant low-level pleading on the right for Jeb Bush, the president's brother and the former governor of Florida, to join the 2012 fray.
The Bush alumni have some strong wind at their back; a new poll out from Gallup gives the GOP its best generic-ballot showing in nearly 70 years. And there's plenty of Bush fundraising muscle to be had. Through their new outfit, American Crossroads, Bush advisers Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove have said their goal is to spend $50 million by the fall's end. A bankroll of that size puts Rove and Co. in the same league as Haley Barbour's Republican Governor's Association and the Republican National Committee.
For their part, Democrats are determined to remind voters that this crop of candidates served the most unpopular president in memory. In fact, the very notion that Bush aides can appeal to voters leaves Democrats befuddled.
"Rob Portman is the No. 1 George Bush look-alike in the country," Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, told The New York Times. "I just can't believe the voters are going to choose the candidate who more than anybody else in the whole country represents what got us into this situation."
We've been here before. Back in 2002, two years removed from the Clinton administration, a host of veterans from that White House, including a foulmouthed aide named Rahm Emanuel, tried their luck as principals. Clinton alums had a serious leg up on the Bush veterans. Bubba rode high out of the White House with approval ratings of 65 percent, the best marks for an outgoing president in 50 years. Dubya, meanwhile, slunk out of Washington with an approval rating of 22 percent, the least popular president in 70 years.
Thanks to that basement-level number, the Republicans basically hid their party's leader during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Even though his stock is rising (Bush's favorability rating was at 45 percent in July), the former president is staying away from the campaign trail.
How popular is Bush now? Candidate resumes offer one measure, and it isn't a happy one. When you look at them, there's one obvious thing missing: Bush's name. In his official biography, Rob Portman mentions his time as White House Associate Counsel to the first President Bush but leaves off the name of the second President Bush when describing his "Cabinet-level" duties. Tom Foley, who was George W. Bush's classmate at Harvard Business School, practices a similar sin of omission: "In 2003 and 2004, the White House asked Tom to serve in Iraq overseeing most of Iraq's state-owned businesses and developing a plan for re-establishing a strong private sector economy," his bio reads. Nine paragraphs into his biography, Griffin mentions his service to the president, while avoiding using his name: "In 2005, Tim served as Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director, Office of Political Affairs at the White House," it reads.
Still, even some Democrats are wary of making the resurgent Bush a key issue in the campaign. John Whiteside, campaign manager for Griffin's Democratic foe Joyce Elliott, says that drawing too much attention to 43 would be a misstep. For one thing, after leaving office, presidents naturally rise in the eyes of voters, he says. For another, it makes the campaign look like it is searching to blame the president for the country's economic problems rather than offer solutions.
"I think it's not like 2006 where you can just run something that says this guy was close to Bush and it wins you a campaign," Whiteside said. But he added, "It's definitely fair game, and we've always used it as a credibility factor."
Correction: This article referred to Jodi Rell as a Democrat.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.