Miss Him Yet?
Why George W. Bush's record matters less than Democrats would like it to.
One explanation for all this may be that Bush isn't thought of as a failed president or a misunderstood Truman-esque success. He's just not thought of, period. The defining events of his presidency—the war on terror and the economic crisis—don't really belong to him, because Obama has presided over them, and the public doesn't register much of a change in how they're being handled. The scandals, meanwhile, intrigued the public up to the moment that they were turned into screenplays, at which point they stopped mattering.
Can Bush nostalgia/denial be blamed on Obama? That's a stretch—all of his problems begin, and most of them end, with the crippling unemployment rate he inherited from Bush. But as baffling as this is for liberals, it's not clear to the median voter how much he traded in when he got rid of Bush. Reagan's presidency represented open and total war on the entirety of the Carter presidency. Obama's presidency has had the trappings of conflict and the reality of continuation.
Look at the anger at Bush's scandals—U.S. attorneys, Plame, all things Iraq, and the so-called "black sites" for interrogation. There was the war on terror and the prosecution of it. Obama's feints at a break from Bush have come as he's basically continued his predecessor's policies. (Somebody stop John Bolton and tell him.) It was Jan. 23, 2009, for example, when Obama ordered the closure of the prison at Gitmo within one year.
The anger that defined Bush's final year, and the anger that sparked the Tea Party, was over his handling of the economy. As far as most Americans know, Obama didn't change direction on that. An August Pew poll had 47 percent of respondents believing that the universally despised TARP was Obama's project, to 34 percent who said it was Bush's. The Glenn Beckian cries of "socialism" get all the attention. The real reason that voters don't like Obama on the economy is that they think he coddles the banks, just like Bush did.
But even if the anger at all of this is so dim, why don't Bush's scandals matter? Because they aren't remembered as significant scandals. Bush left office granting Lewis "Scooter" Libby a commutation, not a pardon, and Democrats opted not to listen to Sen. Patrick Leahy and not to obsess over the fading scandals. And so Griffin's past had no impact on his election.
Clinton administration veterans, meanwhile, were less lucky. Clinton's penultimate chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, was felled in two U.S. Senate races in North Carolina for the crime of working for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. And then there's the matter of what the Clinton scandals were about. "There are certain aspects of the Clinton scandals, the Lewinsky story, that anyone on the street would remember," mused Paul Charlton, one of the ousted U.S. attorneys who is now in private practice in Arizona. "Few remember the details of the scandals that truly caused people concern about Clinton. So maybe unless stories have that kind of appeal, they fade away after some period of time."
Is there any aspect of the Bush legacy that Democrats can use to hurt Republicans? The release of Bush's book may offer some hints. Or it may reveal that Democrats are in the same position they were in 1995, opposing and demonizing the current crop of Republicans while the old crop settles into a respectable new life.
"The Japanese have an expression," said Mark Green, the semiretired New York politician who co-wrote a book, published in 2004, about how bad Bush was. "Nobody remembers anything after 30 days."
Correction, Nov. 8, 2010: This article originally misspelled Joyce Elliott's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Bob Levey/Getty Images.