George Bush is particularly unpopular in New Hampshire. In one poll, his approval rating is 17 percent. The flu may have more fans. Among Democrats, he is particularly reviled—only 1 percent approved of him in the same state poll, which in the sample of 152 amounts to a single person. So, traveling through New Hampshire this week to watch Barack Obama and John Edwards, I thought I might hear a few meaty lines of Bush bashing. Every candidate needs to warm up the crowd, and a few jabs at the president—if not actual effigies—would seem like the way to go.
But the president wasn't mentioned much. Neither candidate talked about Bush's "Mission Accomplished" aircraft-carrier landing or any of his other greatest hits. They didn't make fun of his intelligence, his mangled language, or that he refers to himself as "the decider," the references that often came up when I interviewed people in the audience afterward. There wasn't even a cheap shot at Dick Cheney, who is scorned these days even at the safe venues selected by his office.
The candidates talked about the war in Iraq, of course, but mostly in terms of their plans to remove troops or the debate over funding it. They didn't review the Bush administration's mistakes. You're much more likely to hear this familiar litany at a John McCain town hall meeting, where the candidate most closely associated with the President's Iraq policy needs to distance himself from it. McCain sometimes just blurts a haiku of famous moments of outrageous administration overconfidence: "Mission Accomplished, dead enders, last throes."
When Edwards talked in Concord about America's reputation in the world, he focused not on how Bush had damaged it, but on how to improve it—providing education to Third World countries, relief for AIDS sufferers, and poverty initiatives. In Portsmouth, Obama held a health-care marathon, discussing the issues with voters for nearly two hours. Bush wasn't mentioned once.
There are a few reasons Democratic campaigns don't need to bother much about the man they hope to replace. The first is that they're competing to show they have an appealing vision for the future, so they don't want to dwell on the past. Democratic activists may hate Bush, but even those who obsess about his swagger or his evangelical religious views are usually animated underneath by policy disagreements. They want their candidates to speak about the policies they favor.
Secondly, a little bit of snark goes a long way. In 2000, Republican audiences knew George Bush was talking about Bill Clinton when he promised to "restore honesty and dignity to the oval office." Similarly, Democratic audiences understand precisely what John Edwards means when he says, "I think we need somebody who is honest and open and a good and decent human being. Somebody who can restore some trust between Americans and their president." They're using the power of judicious understatement.
Of course, Republican candidates don't talk much about George Bush, either. Rudy Giuliani told his New Hampshire audiences this week that he's all for the war on terror but didn't mention, let alone praise, the president leading it (perhaps a smart move in a state where Bush lost the primary in 2000). When Giuliani needed a president who stood tough against his enemies and showed resolve in the face of criticism, he didn't use the example close at hand, but instead drove around the block to cite Ronald Reagan. When he needed to make the same point again in the same speech, he bypassed Bush another time and talked about Abraham Lincoln. He got away without having to answer the awkward question: Do you think George Bush has done a good job?