George W. Bush was nowhere to be found at this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.
All the more proof, argues Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast, that Dubya’s presidency—and the way the country feels about his legacy—could be the single largest factor in determining the 2012 election. And that’s bad news for Mitt Romney.
Beinart contends that the perceptions of political parties linger long after a particularly important president is gone. That for years after Civil War, the Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln rather than Jefferson Davis. That after World War II, the Democratic Party was still the party of FDR rather than Herbert Hoover. And that George H.W. Bush won in 1988 because his was still the party of Ronald Reagan rather than Jimmy Carter.
The point, as Walter Dean Burnham and other political scientists have noted, is that not all presidential elections are created equal. Some create a realignment—a shift in public perception of the two parties—that then frames the elections after that. In this era, Bill Clinton began that realignment by ameliorating the Democrats’ reputation as fiscally irresponsible and soft on national security, welfare, and crime. By Clinton’s second term, when asked which party they felt more favorable toward, Americans gave Democrats a double-digit advantage. Then George W. Bush was elected, presided over catastrophes in Iraq, the financial system, and the Gulf Coast—and the GOP’s public image nosedived. Democrats haven’t maintained all the good will they racked up in the Clinton era, which isn’t surprising given the lousy state of the economy. But neither have Republicans rebounded much from their Bush-era collapse. And the result is a Democratic advantage, especially among rising demographic groups like Hispanics and the young.
Mitt Romney is not a great candidate; Barack Obama is a better one. But without the Bush legacy, Romney would be leading this race. His problem is that except among staunch conservatives, Bush has so hurt the GOP’s brand that Romney doesn’t look like the fresh economic fix-it man that Republicans want to portray him as. Instead, it’s all too easy for Democrats to paint him as George W. Bush the 3rd, just as they painted John McCain as George W. Bush the 2nd.
“Romney has tried to handle the Bush legacy the same way McCain did: by ignoring it,” Beinart continued. “But in campaigns, ignoring your weaknesses rarely makes them go away.”
He goes on to argue that it takes a candidate with great personality (“a strong personal brand,” in today’s parlance) to take back the momentum, but that Romney hasn’t been able to put himself across as anything other than a generic Republican.
And unfortunately for him, when Americans think of a generic Republican today, they still think of George W. Bush.
One day, a Republican presidential candidate will exorcise Bush’s ghost. But most likely, he or she will do so by bluntly telling Americans where Bush’s presidency went wrong, and how their presidency will be different. Until that happens, George W. Bush will be present at every Republican and Democratic convention for years to come, whether anyone invites him or not.
Who knows? Maybe the candidate who fulfills Beinart’s predictions will also be named “George Bush.”