TAMPA—The lights dimmed, and there—at long last!—was former President George W. Bush. Sort of. A video started rolling on the convention stage’s web of screens, opening with Bush, in mid-sentence, talking about how proud he’d been when his dad first saw him in the White House. New camera angle, and there he was, George H.W. Bush, carrying the anecdote.
“I was in the bathtub at the White House residence,” mused the senior Bush, “and Ramsey, the guy that worked there, came in and said—get outta that bathtub, your son is in the Oval Office!”
“As I recall,” said the younger Bush, “the conversation went something like this. ‘Welcome, Mr. President. It’s good to see you, Mr. President. And that’s all we said.’ ”
It was a short video, shot by the old Bush friend Mark McKinnon, who copped the Errol Morris style of letting people get personal and stream-of-consciousness without any interviewer prodding them on. The two former presidents’ wives appeared on a couch, talking the same way. Everybody praised the Romney family. Senior Bush described junior Bush as “a good, honest president who got a lot of things done.” And … scene.
The five-minute tribute to Old Guys Hanging Out and Talking was the Republican National Convention’s only reference to the last Republican presidency. The name “George W. Bush” has not appeared in any convention speeches. Absolutely, there were years between 2000 and 2009, and someone was in charge, but we are never told who. We’re just told that it was lousy. The election, said Paul Ryan, will not be fought over “the economy as Barack Obama inherited it.” The president, said Mike Huckabee, was “aiming excuses at his predecessor,” whatever his name was.
Republican delegates aren’t stupid. Unless they’re for Ron Paul, they probably liked Bush. Some of them bought copies of Rebel-in-Chief and prayed for the president’s family and worked in GOP offices with pictures of Bush throwing the first pitch at a post-9/11 Yankees game. And hey, Jeb Bush is here, flitting around to various education-themed and corporate-sponsored luncheons, speaking from the stage tonight. But George Bush isn’t popular anymore, and hasn’t been popular in years.
“It’s a pragmatic approach,” said North Dakota delegate Clare Carlson, shrugging. “Obviously, his popularity wasn’t real high when he left office. He seems to be comfortable with how he did as president, under difficult circumstances.” To be more specific: “Things went well for his presidency right up until the day when voters gave control of Congress to the Democrats.”
You hear this often from the ground-level Republicans, especially the Texas delegates. They worked hard for the guy, and the media smeared him unfairly. In 2007, as his approval ratings fell through floor after floor, Bush said that “history [was] going to have to judge” him. That’s what everybody here expects. History’s just not fair, yet.
“The smart thing to do is focus on here and now and not give President Obama an opportunity to bring up George Bush’s presidency,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first spokesman. “Obviously, I’m sorrowful about it. I’m still who I was.” But the offstage strategy would work. “You create things that drive the news, and typically people ignore the things that aren’t in front of them. If George Bush walked onstage, he’d get a huge ovation. But people aren’t going to walk out of here wishing he was onstage.”
Maybe not, but it’s a strange feeling to pretend that eight years of policymaking never happened. “It’s too bad,” said former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who retired in 2006. “He should be here. We should celebrate with him. That’s my feeling. The first two years I was speaker, we paid down about $650 billion of public debt. Then we had 9/11. So I think history will treat him well. We did have an increase in spending, but it was almost all homeland security and national security spending.”
But what about the reasons Republicans distanced themselves from Bush? The Tea Party movement, in its infancy, was framed up as a rebellion against both parties. Yes, we screwed up, too. The most effective Tea Party spokespeople corrected for Bush’s unpopularity by denouncing Medicare Part D and TARP—one popular program, one mess. The movement—grassroots and donors and groups like the Club for Growth—tomahawked a couple of Republican incumbents, which had the long-term effect of changing everybody’s image. That’s how Rep. Paul Ryan can say he was “miserable during the last majority,” when he was voting for the bills FreedomWorks hated.
“There’s no doubt that Mitt Romney and George W. Bush are very different men,” said Ted Cruz, a former Bush lawyer who’s now a Tea Party-branded Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Texas. “I think George W. Bush has made a decision to retire from public life, and not to intrude. President Obama, unfortunately, has tried to blame everything under the sun on former President Bush, and I think that people aren’t buying it.”
Polling contradicts that. More people blame Bush for the recession—still, after three years—than Obama. And that’s why the Bush name will make its first non-canned-video appearance at the start of Jeb’s speech. He has to defend his brother, he told Fox News. “That’s kind of my role in life now.”
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.