A funny thing happened recently in the presidential campaign in Iowa: the last Republican US president’s name actually surfaced.
“We’ve had, in the past, a couple of presidents from Texas that said they weren’t interested in wars ... like [former US president] George W. Bush,” a voter said to Representative Ron Paul, the US lawmaker from Texas who has been sharply critical of US military entanglements overseas. “My question is: How can we trust another Texan?”
It was an odd, almost discordant moment in a Republican contest where Bush, a two-term president who left office just three years ago, has gone all but unmentioned. While the candidates routinely lionize former US president Ronald Reagan and blame US President Barack Obama for the nation’s economic woes, none has been eager to embrace the Bush legacy of gaping budget deficits, two wars and record-low approval ratings — or blame him for the country’s troubles either.
“Republicans talk a lot about losing their way during the last decade and when they do they’re talking about the Bush years,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College.
The eight-year Bush presidency has merited no more than a fleeting reference in televised debates and interviews. When it does surface it’s often a point of criticism, as when former US senator Rick Santorum told CNN on Sunday that he regretted voting for the No Child Left Behind education reform law Bush championed.
The former president himself has been all but invisible since leaving office in 2009 with a Gallup approval rating of just 34 percent. His predecessor, former US president Bill Clinton, had a 66 percent approval rating in early 2001 when he stepped down after two terms marred by a sex scandal and impeachment.
In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the weak economy, government spending and the US$15 trillion federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which Bush administration policies contributed to those problems. Republicans also controlled the US Congress for six of the eight years Bush was in the White House, clearing the way for many of his policies to be enacted.
There is no question that Obama’s policies, including the federal stimulus program and the auto industry bailout, have swollen the deficit and deepened the debt. And three years into his presidency, Obama often falls back on complaints about the bad situation he inherited when seeking to defend his own economic performance.
However, while Obama may be overly eager to blame the Bush years for the nation’s problems, Republican presidential contenders seem just as eager to pretend those years never happened.
Taking office in 2001 with a balanced federal budget and a surplus, Bush quickly pushed through sweeping tax cuts that were not offset by spending cuts. The tax cuts have cost about US$1.8 trillion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks never were budgeted and have cost taxpayers about US$1.4 trillion so far. Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq last month, but the Afghanistan conflict will extend into 2014.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program widely loathed by many conservatives, was another Bush-era program. Congress authorized nearly US$700 billion for the program at the recommendation of Bush’s Treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson, in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis in the fall of 2008. As a presidential candidate, Obama supported the bailout, as did his Republican rival, US Senator John McCain.