WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush made it clear months ago that he wouldn't attend the Republican National Convention this week in Tampa. But his absence is not just physical; it's metaphysical.
That's because Bush's very existence belies two of the most critical selling points of GOP nominee Mitt Romney's presidential campaign: That tax cuts for the rich will create jobs, and that Romney is bringing a fresh new approach that can turn the country's fortunes around.
"What they want to go back to is exactly what Bush did then, and that didn't work," said presidential historian and Millsaps College professor Robert S. McElvaine. Romney's economic proposals "are exactly the sorts of things that resulted in the economic declines in 1928 and 2008."
"They want to try it again, but they don't want to remind people of that fact by having Bush around," he said.
Under Bush, tax breaks and lax regulations led to skyrocketing deficits and an economic collapse, while at the same time dramatically increasing poverty and inequality. A bellicose foreign policy led to two hugely costly wars, left unfinished.
Better just to pretend it didn't happen.
"As far as the GOP convention is concerned, there might never have been a second Bush presidency," Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University politics professor emeritus, told HuffPost.
Jeremy Mayer, a public policy professor at George Mason University, said Romney has failed to distinguish his policies from Bush's. "Cutting taxes, deregulating the economy, letting the job creators get their job done -- that's really Bush 101," he said. "We've learned that the American public liked it OK in 2000, but they sure didn't like it by the end of his presidency."
The Romney team's messaging makes Bush a liability, said Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College who wrote a textbook on the American presidency. "They would like the country to say this is a takeover guy, a takeover/turnaround guy."
On the foreign policy front, Romney also seems to be following a Bush-like path. Princeton University historian and author Sean Wilentz wrote in an email to the Huffington Post that "though it's hard to get a fix on Romney's foreign policy ideas (to the extent that he has any), the neo-conservatives who enjoyed so much influence under Bush seem to be rested and ready to take the helm under a Romney administration."
"The neocon position does seem to have become the default position in the Republican Party," said Bob Merry, the editor of the National Interest and author of "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians." "I'm kind of baffled by that, considering the lack of success that philosophy has had in directing Republican foreign policy in recent years."
Romney "certainly seems to have incorporated the pure rhetoric of the neocon philosophy," Merry said, "and if he governs strictly on that basis, then I think America is going to have a relatively bellicose foreign policy, and that may not necessarily be in the best interest of America."
Merry argues that the U.S. is already on the path to war with Iran. Romney is less likely than Obama to change that course, he said.
And that's no small matter. "We can't afford another war," said Cronin. "We can't afford the two we just had."
Republican presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg, who is an informal adviser to the Romney campaign, is somewhat kinder to Bush, while at the same time quick to focus on how Romney would be different.
Felzenberg likened Romney more to Ronald Reagan than Bush when it comes to foreign policy. He cited the precedent of Iran releasing its American hostages as soon as Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 for fear of a nuclear response. "I think they thought that Ronald Reagan would make Iran a parking lot," he said. Today's Iranian leaders might be more likely to capitulate to Romney than to Obama, thereby avoiding war, he suggested.
Romney hears from plenty of people besides neocons, Felzenberg said. "I don't think Romney will be the kind of person who will have only one foreign policy guru."
And while Bush and Romney both stand for tax cuts, Romney "would cut taxes in a different way, perhaps," Felzenberg said. "I don't know that he would do precisely what we did before."
Wilentz sees Bush and Romney as kindred souls in other ways. "They are two different men, obviously," Wilentz wrote to HuffPost. "Still, Bush was a weak president who gave much too much authority to his vice president and to others inside the executive branch until the last two years of his presidency, when he took a different tack. Romney, having caved to the right wing of his party on so much over the last few years, most lately by selecting Paul Ryan, has not appeared to be a pillar of strength."
There is another reason Republican leaders have airbrushed Bush out of the GOP family album: To the Tea Partiers who now make up the angry, spiritual core of the party, Bush wasn't nearly radical or merciless enough.
"Bush was a pre-Tea Party president," anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist told Huff Post Tuesday.
Merry said Tea Partiers are particularly incensed that Bush never used his veto power to rein in spending. "It isn't very often that we have a two-term president who seems to be out of sync with the party almost immediately upon leaving office."
"I think these young Republicans -- and Paul Ryan is a prime example -- privately look back at George Bush as a disaster in economic policy," said Merry. "In selecting Paul Ryan, Romney has essentially indicated that he agrees with that."
But H.W. Brands, a University of Texas historian, said that it might be hard for any Republican president to reach the Tea Party's anti-government standards.
"Bush wasn't sufficiently anti-government for the Tea Party," he said, but added, "No president can be. If the Tea Party folks look closely at Reagan, they will discover they don't really like him either."
And Wilentz noted that, "Bush's allies, above all Karl Rove, remain major powers in the GOP, so the general interests of what had been the less extreme, more mainstream elements in the party, are being looked after."
Mayer said Bush's legacy will be central to the campaign between Romney and Obama, whether Romney likes it or not. The defining question, he said, is: "Is Bush a Truman, a Carter or a Hoover?" Bush wants to think of himself as a Harry Truman, who left office unpopular but was eventually lauded for his accomplishments; Jimmy Carter is largely considered just inept. Herbert Hoover's name still gets Democrats fired up, nearly 80 years after he left office.
Thinking back to Bush's tenure, there's certainly a case for Hoover.
An informal survey of historians near the end of Bush's presidency found that 61 percent rated him the worst president ever.
And while Bush spoke repeatedly about not leaving difficult problems to his successors, he inherited a budget surplus but left so many crises to Barack Obama that trying to dig out of them has been the defining challenge of his presidency. Bush's main legacy may well be his squandering of a national and international outpouring of support immediately post 9/11.
"There's not much good to say about the Bush years," said Brands. "The tax cuts and spending increases led to big deficits. And the financial meltdown made it seem no one was at home supervising Wall Street."
But Felzenberg said he thinks there are benign reasons for Bush's no-show. "I think the reason why Bush isn't here is Romney wants to paint a vision for himself, and not re-litigate the past," he said.
Cronin pointed out that Bush probably has his own reasons not to attend the convention. "The elections of 2006 and 2008 were referendum elections against Iraq and against Bush and Cheney, and he took it hard," Cronin said. "I don't think he wants to be a piñata."
In a July interview, Bush said he'd had enough of politics. ''I crawled out of the swamp, and I'm not crawling back in,'' he said.
Bush barely even participated in Republican John McCain's failed campaign to succeed him. And at McCain's nominating convention in 2008, Bush got the bum's rush. He delivered an abbreviated address by video from Washington. There was no tribute to his achievements.
The man who for most of his presidency had been able to repeatedly bully Congress into rubber-stamping his agenda -- in large part by leveraging what he called the "existential threat" to the country of international terrorism -- already was an existential threat to his own party.
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