He Who Shall Not Be Named
An amazing moment occurred yesterday on the campaign trail. Somebody said something nice about He Who Shall Not Be Named.
"I keep hearing (Obama) say that he's responsible for keeping America from going into a Great Depression," Mitt Romney said during an event in Maryland. "No, no, no. That was President George W. Bush..." Mitt actually uttered the B-word - and in a favorable context, no less! That was truly a show-stopper, because, thus far in the Republican campaign, "George W. Bush" has rarely escaped the candidates' lips. Ronald Reagan has naturally received plenty of shout-outs, but if you tallied the tens of millions of words expended during the primary season, you'd labor virtually in vain to find any praise for the guy who recently reigned eight years.
It's weird, in a way. It wasn't all that long ago - I'm thinking of the 2004 Republican Convention, which I attended in New York - when Bush was treated like a demigod. Night after night, the podium hyperbole was over the top. But the election debacles of 2006 and 2008 have clearly rebooted the grassroots Republican mood.
The conservative base probably doesn't concur with the widely held (true) view that Bush was one of the worst presidents in history, as evidenced not just by his disastrous unfunded war in Iraq, but by the fact that he left us with a smoking wreckage where once there was an economy. No, those are not the reasons why base voters (and the candidates who pander to the base voters) feel such ill will toward the Unnamed. Their big complaint is that Bush betrayed conservatism, that he wasn't truly one of them. So this election season, they want a truly true believer.
And to achieve that goal, they first need to trash virtually everything Bush did during his tenure.
Such was the drill during the Republican debates. Romney dumped on Rick Santorum for his Senate vote to pass No Child Left Behind (a signature Bush program that expanded government oversight of education). He dumped on Santorum for supporting the Bridge to Nowhere and scads of other federal goodies (earmarks exploded during the Bush era). He dumped on Santorum for supporting the pricey Medicare drug prescription plan (another signature Bush initiative). He dumped on Santorum for supporting big Bush-backed appropriations bills that included (get ready, folks) money for Planned Parenthood. In response, Santorum dumped on Romney for endorsing the '08 federal bailout of the banks (another Bush initiative).
In other words, it has been open season on dissing W. Without ever specifically naming W as the culprit.
And let's not forget the immigration issue. Back in the distant days of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," he pitched a path-to-citizenship plan for illegal immigrants. Romney this season has positioned himself far to the right, suggesting instead that we should make things so miserable for illegal immigrants that they will "self-deport." Indeed, when one-time flavor of the month Rick Perry sought during a debate to defend the idea of giving state college tuition aid to the children of illegal immigrants, he was booed. When he suggested that the boobirds didn't have a "heart" (a favorite Bush word back in the day), he was booed some more.
Bottom line: If He Who Shall Not Be Named was running in the 2012 primaries, touting his brand of conservative Republicanism, he would be booed. The guy is just too lefty for today's purists. Which is why he keeps getting dissed in absentia. Which tells you plenty about today's GOP.
But that prompts a question. How come Romney suddenly invoked Bush yesterday, to the point of singing his praises? (Whether Bush actually deserved that praise, whether he actually rescued us from a Great Depression, is a debate for another day.) Why did Romney suddenly extol Bush as a national hero?
A few hours prior to Romney's shout out, a prominent GOPer released this statement: "Congratulations to Governor Mitt Romney on his win (in Illinois) and to all the candidates for a hard fought, thoughtful debate and primary season. Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall. I am endorsing Mitt Romney for our party's nomination. We face huge challenges, and we need a leader who understands the economy, recognizes more government regulation is not the answer, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism and works to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed."
Signed, Jeb Bush.
Yes, the Bush brand is on the cusp of a comeback - and Mitt is recalibrating accordingly. It's his way of saying thanks for the endorsement. One hand washes the other. All that previous dissing of W and his policies? All that distancing from W, treating him as He Who Shall Not Be Named? Erased in an instant. And how easy that is, when you have an Etch a Sketch sensibility.
Speaking of Etch a Sketch, will that gaffe supplant the yarn about how Romney put his dog on the roof for a 12-hour drive? My newspaper column today explains why the Seamus story has pentrated the popular culture, much like John Edwards' $400 haircut, John Kerry's windsurfing, and George H. W. Bush's supermarket scanner.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1
Support provided by