TAMPA, Fla. -- Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright turned heads last week by saying that Democrats could very well blame George W. Bush's presidency forever for the nation's problems.
Republicans cried foul, arguing that it was well past time to move on from the former president. After all, they've basically expunged him from their memories.
The Bush name and legacy are noticeably absent from the 2012 Republican convention. The former president unceremoniously announced he was skipping the affair months ago. Dick Cheney, the former vice president who remains more revered among the core national-security minded conservative set, isn't speaking, either. Bush's brother, Jeb, the former Republican governor of Florida, will address the crowd. As will Bush's former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. But they're expected to address specific policy issues, mainly education, rather than defend their brethren and their former boss.
There is a "special guest" appearance at the convention on Thursday night. But virtually no one in the convention hall was bold enough to predict that Bush (or Cheney) would be the one to fill it. Should they not show, it would mark eight years since a live Bush convention speech. (He gave a video address in 2008, skipping the event in Minnesota due to fear of a hurricane in the Gulf.)
"The modern Republican Party changed dramatically at the shock of Obama's overspending, which also brought into focus the fact that we had been creeping up on this with Bush," anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist offered as explanation for why the party had washed itself of its last White House occupant. "Instead of being the party that won't raise taxes and everything else is open season, we are now the party that won't raise taxes and wants to restrain spending and everything else is up for negotiation. Bush was a pre-Tea Party president."
With respect to Bush, it seems, there is simply nothing to talk about. Or, rather, nothing that the Romney campaign wants to talk about.
Immigration reform, which Bush pursued, has hardly been touched (though as The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman reports, several Bush family members are privately advising the party on how to turn out the Hispanic vote.)
Foreign policy has been an afterthought during the convention's first two days. On occasion, an attendee will gripe about President Barack Obama taking credit for policies that his predecessor put in place (in conversations, several attendees echoed complaints by a group of conservative-leaning former Navy SEALS that Obama is taking too much credit for Osama bin Laden's death). But as of Wednesday morning, there had been only one mention of Bush's policies towards Afghanistan, Iraq or terrorism in general during the convention.
"I think it is best for the whole party for him to step aside," said Christine Sutton, 62, of Honolulu. "The candidate we have now doesn't need support from anybody else and why should a former president or a vice president appear. ... Bush did his thing and he was a wonderful president, a wonderful president. We will talk about him, but he's not the issue now. The issue is to get our candidate elected."
"I think George W. Bush is taking the opportunity to have some time with his family and friends," said A.J. Matthews, the lone RNC delegate from the city of Tampa. "His time in the forefront of the spotlight is over. I think he is allowing Mitt Romney the opportunity to carve his own path. And I respect him for it."
Presidential legacies are cast over decades, not conventions. And while top Republicans conceded that Bush's presence in Tampa would have caused collective angina -- offering the perfect photo op to frame Romney as a continuation of his governing philosophy -- they argued that it won't always be this way.
"Give it time," longtime strategist Mike Murphy told The Huffington Post. "It will get better."
Still, the contrast between Bush's reception among Republicans and former President Bill Clinton's reception among Democrats will be hard to ignore. Clinton has a prime-time speaking role at the upcoming Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., his fourth-straight cycle making an appearance.
At first, Democrats' arrangement with Clinton was complex. In 2000, top aides to former Vice President Al Gore were concerned about the shadow Clinton would cast -- not just because of his ethical issues, but because Gore needed to prove he was his own pol.
"Clinton was not the same person in 2000 as he is now," said Bob Shrum, who helped manage Gore's campaign and the 2000 convention. "People had a cognitive dissonance about him. They thought he'd been a good president, but they thought he'd embarrassed them as well.
"Obviously as the incumbent Democratic president, he was going to speak. He gave an extraordinary speech and then he left the convention and went to Michigan. He did an introductory speech [there, for Gore] and that was the handoff."
It ended up being the second-most memorable address of that convention, Shrum added. Gore's speech was the first. "But what would have hurt us is if Gore looked like he was completely derivative and not his own person."
Clinton's advisers spent that night and much of the rest of the election convinced that Gore's effort to create distance was harming his chances. After the election, those concerns grew louder. But even at the height of intra-Democratic-Party psychodrama, Clinton had a role to play. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry gave him a primetime-speaking slot. In 2008, Obama would do the same, with an eye on repairing bruised feelings that had resulted from the biter primary fight he'd waged with Hilary Clinton. In 2012, Obama is leaning on Clinton once more, this time with more weight.
The setup has invited mockery in the halls of the Republican convention in Tampa.
"It's odd to think Obama has to look backwards to Clinton in order to find a forward message, especially after spending so much time blaming the previous president for his lack of progress," said Rich Grenell, a conservative foreign policy spokesman who briefly served on the Romney campaign. "Romney has done a good job of breaking with McCain and Bush and forging his own brand of conservatism."
But it also offers an illustration of how presidential reputations can be shaped, molded and made politically potent or toxic over time. As longtime Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf noted, Clinton worked hard to make sure that his standing improved once he left office, launching a philanthropic foundation and diving into complex socioeconomic and global health problems.
"I don’t think Bush has made any effort to make his numbers great," Elmendorf said. "He's decided he is who he is and doesn't want to be out in the public trying to rehabilitate his image. Clinton has."
Where that leaves Bush come the next Republican convention, and those after that, is anyone's guess. But for now, offered Shrum, the best modern parallel to Bush's standing within the GOP would be an uncomfortable one for conservatives to consider.
"The right analogy is probably [Jimmy] Carter in the '80s. He didn't have a speaking role at Democratic conventions in the '80s," said Shrum. "I think he is the better analogy or metaphor or analog because, fairly or unfairly, his presidency was perceived to be a failure."
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