Miss Him Yet?

Why George W. Bush’s record matters less than Democrats would like it to.

George W. Bush

The two-year Democratic campaign to remind voters of the nightmare of the presidency of George W. Bush did not succeed. Need proof? Look to Arkansas. That’s where the GOP took over most of the congressional delegation for the first time since 1964 and did it with a first-time candidate named Tim Griffin.

If Griffin’s name sparks something in your memory, it should. He spent the aughts working for Bush, for the campaign and the administration. In 2006, the Justice Department accepted the resignation of seven U.S. attorneys; the replacements were more ideologically simpatico, and people noticed. Griffin got one of the plum jobs, but he resigned after six months with a speech worthy of Jerry Maguire in its angry bridge-burning. Public service, said Griffin, was “not worth it.”

And now he’s going to be a member of the House of Representatives. He drubbed State Sen. Joyce Elliott by 20 points in what, on paper, should be the most Democratic district in Arkansas. * Elliott tried to drape Bush around Griffin’s shoulders, especially his involvement—still much disputed—with the Bush re-election campaign’s effort to “cage” voter registrations by sending first-class mail to their addresses and seeing if it bounced back.

“It was not hard to explain,” she told me, reflecting on the race. “It was absolutely out there. But it absolutely did not take hold with people.”  Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington dubbed Griffin one of the “Crooked Candidates of 2010.” Griffin simply called CREW a “fringe left-wing group,” and newspapers thwacked Elliott for harping on her opponent’s past. Elliott attacked Griffin over the “caging” scandal, so he said she wanted to “make this election about defending ACORN.” She fired her guns; the bullets bounced like rubber.

George W. Bush’s memoir hits bookstores tomorrow morning, and there’s hardly a hint of controversy about it. Two new movies dramatize the scandals of Bush’s agonizing second term: the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson drama, Fair Game, and the Jack Abramoff farce, Casino Jack. Both have marquee casts, and the first has Oscar buzz. But neither is generating much popular interest or reflection.

If anything, they miss out on two trends of the midterms: Bush nostalgia and Bush denialism. The two traits are inseperable. The man left office with an approval rating stuck below 30 percent, while he’d matched the intense unpopularity of the departing Richard Nixon in 1974.

Now according to a pre-election poll by Doug Schoen, the Clinton pollster who has spent the last two years jousting with Doug Rasmussen for the job of chief Obama doomsayer, 48 percent of voters feel that Bush was a better president than Obama. Only 43 percent of voters felt the opposite way.

But this is not why Republicans won last week. An NBC News poll from September revealed that 62 percent of voters disliked Bush’s economic policies. That was the number on which the Democrats were banking their fall campaign. That was what Barack Obama’s Parable of the Slurpee, his tale of how Republicans figuratively enjoyed an iced beverage while the Democrats tried to push the economy out of a figurative ditch, was supposed to exploit.

It didn’t work, obviously. In that same September poll lies a clue as to why: Voters did not like Bush’s economic policies, but neither did they believe Bush’s party would return to them. Fifty-eight percent of voters said they believed that the new breed of Republicans (like Tim Griffin, we assume) would not go back to Bush’s policies.

So voters punished Democrats even though, according to the midterm national exit poll, only 23 percent of them blamed Obama for “economic problems,” while 29 percent blamed Bush, and 35 percent blamed Wall Street.

One explanation for all this may be that Bush isn’t thought of as a failed president or a misunderstood Truman-esque success. He’s just not thought of, period. The defining events of his presidency—the war on terror and the economic crisis—don’t really belong to him, because Obama has presided over them, and the public doesn’t register much of a change in how they’re being handled. The scandals, meanwhile, intrigued the public up to the moment that they were turned into screenplays, at which point they stopped mattering.

Can Bush nostalgia/denial be blamed on Obama? That’s a stretch—all of his problems begin, and most of them end, with the crippling unemployment rate he inherited from Bush. But as baffling as this is for liberals, it’s not clear to the median voter how much he traded in when he got rid of Bush. Reagan’s presidency represented open and total war on the entirety of the Carter presidency. Obama’s presidency has had the trappings of conflict and the reality of continuation.

Look at the anger at Bush’s scandals—U.S. attorneys, Plame, all things Iraq, and the so-called “black sites” for interrogation. There was the war on terror and the prosecution of it. Obama’s feints at a break from Bush have come as he’s basically continued his predecessor’s policies. (Somebody stop John Bolton and tell him.) It was Jan. 23, 2009, for example, when Obama ordered the closure of the prison at Gitmo within one year.

The anger that defined Bush’s final year, and the anger that sparked the Tea Party, was over his handling of the economy. As far as most Americans know, Obama didn’t change direction on that. An August Pew poll had 47 percent of respondents believing that the universally despised TARP was Obama’s project, to 34 percent who said it was Bush’s. The Glenn Beckian cries of “socialism” get all the attention. The real reason that voters don’t like Obama on the economy is that they think he coddles the banks, just like Bush did.

But even if the anger at all of this is so dim, why don’t Bush’s scandals matter? Because they aren’t remembered as significant scandals. Bush left office granting Lewis “Scooter” Libby a commutation, not a pardon, and Democrats opted not to listen to Sen. Patrick Leahy and not to obsess over the fading scandals. And so Griffin’s past had no impact on his election.

Clinton administration veterans, meanwhile, were less lucky. Clinton’s penultimate chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, was felled in two U.S. Senate races in North Carolina for the crime of working for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. And then there’s the matter of what the Clinton scandals were about. “There are certain aspects of the Clinton scandals, the Lewinsky story, that anyone on the street would remember,” mused Paul Charlton, one of the ousted U.S. attorneys who is now in private practice in Arizona. “Few remember the details of the scandals that truly caused people concern about Clinton. So maybe unless stories have that kind of appeal, they fade away after some period of time.”

Is there any aspect of the Bush legacy that Democrats can use to hurt Republicans? The release of Bush’s book may offer some hints. Or it may reveal that Democrats are in the same position they were in 1995, opposing and demonizing the current crop of Republicans while the old crop settles into a respectable new life.

“The Japanese have an expression,” said Mark Green, the semiretired New York politician who co-wrote a book, published in 2004, about how bad Bush was. “Nobody remembers anything after 30 days.”

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Correction, Nov. 8, 2010: This article originally misspelled Joyce Elliott’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)