WASHINGTON -- At roughly noon on Tuesday, shortly after Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the tax policy platform for his presidential campaign, President Obama's reelection team offered a response. The Texas Republican and top challenger Mitt Romney wanted to "shift a greater share of taxes away from large corporations and the wealthiest onto the backs of the middle class," the campaign's press secretary, Ben LaBolt, emailed reporters.
It was a customary campaign response: tough-worded, carefully crafted and with a targeted message. Notably, it excluded mention of the most oft-criticized GOP figure of the last decade: former President George W. Bush.
From President Obama's 2008 campaign through the mid-term elections in 2010, the nation's 43rd president has served as a reliable boogeyman. The phrase "Bush's failed economic policies" was ingrained in the political lexicon. The "Bush foreign policy" became synonymous with disastrous adventures overseas. A "return to Bush" was the threat attached to any prospective Republican candidacy.
And yet, months into the president's run for a second term, mentions of Bush have all but disappeared. A review of the official public statements sent by the campaign from either LaBolt or campaign manager Jim Messina since late April reveals that the former president has yet to be mentioned by name. And it's not because there hasn't been an opportunity to do so.
On Oct. 24, 2011, the Obama campaign sent out a "Memorandum To Interested Parties," authored by James Kvaal, the campaign's policy director. The memo dealt with "Republican Plans Shift Taxes from Wealthiest Households onto Middle Class" -- a topic that used to be hailed as emblematic of Bush-era economics. But Obama's predecessor wasn't discussed.
In a 15-minute Oct. 19 conference call with Messina and LaBolt following the Republican presidential debate the night before, Bush's name never came up. The day before, the campaign put out a response to Romney's declaration that he'd like to see the foreclosure process run its course. An invitation to invoke the perils of Bush's ownership society or his soft touch on the banking system wasn't taken.
On Oct. 14, the campaign issued a response to a Perry energy speech. Numerous analysts had already compared it to an extension of Bush's oil-friendly policies. Obama's reelection team didn't take the bait. They chose, instead, to merely allude to the former president: "It’s straight out of the past," the campaign said of the plan.
On Oct. 7, a similar situation occurred when Romney gave a speech on foreign policy that observers quickly characterized as Bush 2.0. LaBolt's statement never mentioned Bush by name.
The Obama campaign declined a request to comment for this piece. But several top officials in the party felt compelled to defend the tactic on its behalf.
"Bush is irrelevant to the public," said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster. "It's not about him anymore and just seems political when you do it ... like you are ducking responsibility."
There is no clear historical precedent when it comes to incumbent presidents invoking their predecessor's name during their attempts for reelection. Bill Clinton "would never mention [the first] Bush, even though we wanted to," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for Clinton. "It was totally different for Reagan, [who] never stopped talking about Carter."
"In Britain, we still attack Thatcher," added Greenberg, who offered the following prediction: "I'm not sure Obama would ever use Bush's name."
Yet, the actual polling data suggests that Obama could still get political mileage from doing so. A late August Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 51 percent of respondents continued to blame Bush for the country's economic duress; 31 percent put the bulk of the blame on Obama.
It may be, as Lake put it, a bit off-putting for voters to see a president, three years in, still talking about the past. Certainly, Republicans have argued that doing so is not presidential. But not everyone is willing to give up on Bush bashing.
"Voters are still sympathetic to the fact that Bush left the country in a deep dark economic hole that Obama has been digging out of from day one," said one top Democratic strategist who, like others, declined to speak on the record out of fear of being reprimanded for second-guessing Obama campaign strategy. "That said, it's a tricky landscape to underscore this message without looking whiny or unaccountable. It's awkward at this point to come from [the president], but certainly not the campaign."
"Indeed, I’d like to see the pro-Obama pundits make it more personal." the strategist continued. "Hammer guys like Rove and Ari Fleischer with a shovel. Why do we treat them like they’ve earned a special seat on the country club board table?"
That's not to say there isn't shouting of Bush's name. While referring to the 43rd president has become passé for much of the Obama campaign, some White House officials still engage in it. On Oct. 12, Vice President Joseph Biden -- who's not exactly known for his talking points discipline -- challenged Republicans in Congress to "come up with one thing that's different from what George Bush did." This month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has brought up Bush to defend the president from attacks on foreign policy and his handling of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program for renewable energy.
The Democratic National Committee has, like Obama for America, slowed down on its Bush name dropping. In a three-page memo issued before the last Republican presidential debate, it never mentioned the former president. Nor did it do so in its pre-buttle to the debate the week prior, or in its attacks on Romney's foreclosure statements.
But the DNC did send out a CNN video on Oct. 7 titled "Romney's foreign policy sounds just like Bush's" along with an Atlantic Wire piece titled: "Romney's Ready to Bring Back Bush's Foreign Policy." Three days prior to that while hosting a conference call, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz argued that Romney thought "it was a good idea to create personal investment accounts out of Social Security -- like those touted by George W. Bush." A review of a month's worth of emails shows that the committee's rapid response arm has attacked Romney four times with the same Bush-related bullet point: that he would extend the Bush tax cuts "for the wealthiest Americans."
But this hardly echoes the Bush-centric focus of the last three campaign cycles. Increasingly, it seems the gratuitous Bush fear-mongering is being left to those groups who operate outside the official reelection circle. Bill Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary who spearheads the Obama-allied Priorities USA, remains a maestro at the tactic. In an Oct. 22 memo he accused Romney and other Republicans of praising "President Bush’s go-it-alone approach for the ground invasion of Iraq." Two days earlier, he put out a statement arguing that the country "tried Romney's economic vision with President George W. Bush and it failed miserably for the middle class."
Burton's job, in the end, is to build campaign narratives. Obama must do that and reach out to voters, advisers caution. And so, while the temptation to bring back Bush as a campaign cudgel will and has surfaced, the theory appears to be that he's better off simply alluding to his predecessor.
"I think the president is properly focused on what he is trying to do, which is to fix the economy now and focus in on the fact that Republicans are preventing him from taking those steps," said Mark Mehlman, another prominent Democratic pollster.
With Reporting By Jordan Howard
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