CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As she watched her fellow former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice address the Republican Convention in Tampa last week, Madeleine Albright said she felt no discomfort in seeing an official who spent her career in the diplomatic world thrust into a partisan setting. She too has addressed conventions before, though "not in exactly the same tenor," she said.
What disappointed her was how Rice's widely praised address glossed over the historical record.
"I do think that once you finish being secretary of state you are able to do whatever you want," Albright told The Huffington Post in an interview in downtown Charlotte on Monday. "There are no rules for former secretaries of state. I was a little surprised at her taking credit for things but not taking responsibility for others."
Albright is among a group of prominent Democratic officials, many hailing from the Clinton administration, who are unapologetically comfortable blaming President George W. Bush for most of the nation's problems. Her chiding of Rice for avoiding discussion of the Iraq War followed a speech she gave in Missouri several weeks ago, in which she declared that it would be fine with her if President Barack Obama went on blaming his predecessor "forever."
"We were talking about what were the issues that President Obama was left with when he took office, and also, what were the issues that President Bush was left with when he took office," Albright said, in response to Republican criticism that she was passing the buck.
"Somebody in the audience asked, 'How long are you going to blame the Bush people?' And my answer was 'forever,'" she said. "I do think that the problems that they left have been very, very complicated and difficult and that President Obama, systematically over the last three and three-quarter years, worked to get us out of that hole."
"Nothing in the statement I made would indicate that I don’t think President Obama doesn't have to take responsibility for the things he has been involved in," Albright added. "However, it is not past human understanding to realize that if someone has put you in a 20-foot hole, that that bears something about where you stand."
Albright's comments are a pure distillation of the Democratic mentality at the convention this week. Bush's name might not be on the tip of everyone's tongue. But if you ask attendees whether Obama is getting blamed for his predecessor's decisions, the answer is universally yes.
"Bush is sort of political herpes. He is just going to erupt from time to time and just at the most inopportune moments. It's not that he will push himself on to the stage, I think he has rightly slunk away, but the virus still exists in the body," said former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, relying on another of his usual colorful metaphors. "It can't be the whole of the argument. But they did run the country for eight years."
And yet, while this may be a commonly held supposition for Democrats, not everyone is willing to say it. Whereas Begala and Albright are comfortable pushing the blame on to Bush, the Obama campaign has been careful in addressing the topic. When asked how much the 43rd President would be a part of the Democratic convention, top adviser David Axelrod responded last week by saying they would reference him with as much frequency as Republicans did at theirs (translation: almost never).
There's a reason for the caution, and it's not just because Obama is nervous about going after a former occupant of the Oval Office having now spent time in it. While former Clinton officials feel like drawing a contrast with Bush only boosts their former boss' standing as a steward of the economy, the Obama campaign worries that evoking Bush would suggest that Obama is avoiding responsibility for the past four years. And since the country still largely faults Bush for the current economic malaise, the campaign has decided to use him subtly.
"We talk frequently about the fact that Mitt Romney's economic policies aren't theories, that we put them into practice," Obama Campaign Press Secretary Ben LaBolt told The Huffington Post. "We passed tax cuts for the wealthiest in 2001 and 2003 and it led to the slowest pace of job creation since World War II. We stripped back oversight from banks and polluters ... That was the financial house of cards that collapsed in 2008, so why would we ever want to return to that?"
For many Democrats, however, failing to bring Bush back to the spotlight means leaving an effective piece of political ammunition on the proverbial table. Several months ago, The Huffington Post asked 2008 Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Hildebrand why he thought Democrats were less engaged this cycle than they were four years prior.
"There are not the two negative motivating factors that there were in 2008," he responded, "which were the Bush presidency and the war."
On substantive policy issues, meanwhile, Albright argues that Obama is taking heat for simply adapting to the lessons of the Bush years. On Syria, for example, there is an expectation that a complicated, violent situation can be patched clean overnight. But as Albright puts it, "having learned from the mistakes made in Iraq," the administration is trying to first figure out what "a post-Assad regime of some kind" would resemble.
"We expect very quick answers to everything," Albright said. "I was very critical of the way [Egypt's] Tahrir Square was covered: it was a spectator sport with no overtime. This is a long process."
Albright's take on the current state of U.S.-Russian relations was slightly different. She didn't mention Bush when discussing what she deemed a "complicated" state of affairs. But she did argue that diplomatic saber-rattling and propping Russia up as a geopolitical foe -- which Bush didn't do but Romney has done -- are both counterproductive.
"I think it is very important to deal with Russia, to be honest with Russia, but not to do what Romney is doing which is making them another Cold War enemy," said Albright, noting that the true state of Russia's economic strength and regional political clout isn't fully clear. "It is really looking backwards."
There is, of course, a complicating factor to the strategy of blaming Bush. On several fundamental policies -- from indefinite detention to warrantless wiretapping -- Obama took a page from his predecessor. And so, to criticize Bush for the legacy he left would require Democrats to point fingers at themselves. But Albright insists that the party is already doing just that.
"You know, frankly, what I have found is that Democrats are often more likely to criticize their own," Albright said, suggesting that Obama hasn't escaped blame on those issues.
"I think that President Obama's intentions have been to have a different approach on some of the detention stuff," she said. "There have been some steps that have been quite different. But I actually don't think Democrats give him a pass."
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