Denial About Mitt Romney’s Bush Problem

The eyes of President G.W. Bush

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

I don’t want to do too much pure horse-race punditry, but everyone in Washington is talking about this Politico pre-recriminations story about the Romney campaign, so I can’t help myself.

It’s a great assemblage of leaks, but analytically two things about it seemed odd to me. One is that I think it’s important to express the viewpoint that despite the high level of unemployment, there’s reason to believe the economic fundamentals favor Obama (the wise pundit will even link to my post on the subject). The other issue is that whatever you make of the fundamentals, the dark cloud hanging over the Romney campaign has a name. And it’s not the name of “top strategist” Stuart Stevens. It’s the name Bush—specifically in its George W. variety, though George H.W. doesn’t help. It’s a name people associate with recent Republican presidents and economic performance that ranges from poor (father) to disastrous (son).

Democrats were really eager to highlight Bill Clinton at their convention, while George W. Bush was kept far, far away from Tampa. This shows that at some level the GOP understands the problem and its basic dimensions. But the idea that people are going to forget Bush was president four years ago because he’s not onstage at a convention is silly. And the Bush economy was really bad! Even before the recession, liberal wonks had all kinds of data series to show he’d presided over the weakest postwar expansion ever, and then it was punctuated by the worst postwar recession. A campaign whose premise is that the GOP will restore prosperity will naturally labor against the presupposition that it’ll actually just bring back Bush-era policies and Bush-era results.

That’s an objectively difficult problem to deal with, so I don’t know how plausible it is to blame Romney’s campaign team for not getting it done. But if you want to blame them for something, surely that’s the problem that needs addressing.