The Unimportance of Ex Presidents

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 13, 2011


The presence of former President George W. Bush in the memorial held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks highlights one of the most admirable strengths of American democracy. Former presidents are not important political figures. Because American is, perhaps excessively, a forward-looking country, former presidents always belong in the past. Their legacies are intensely debated, but they play no role in influencing the future direction of their party. For Republicans, not having to defend George W. Bush’s record is clearly an advantage.


Two and a half years after leaving office, President Bush remains a controversial figure in American politics. His best-selling and highly criticized book Decision Points, published in 2010, confirmed the polarized visions Americans have of his 8-year presidency. It was widely expected that he would be invited to be part of the September 11th ten-year commemorations. For the White House, it was an opportunity to remind democratic-leaning Americans that, despite all of his weaknesses and shortcomings, having a President Obama is far better than having a President Bush.


Democratic strategists also hoped that, when comparing both leaders’ legacies, American independents—a crucial voting bloc in 2012—would be more inclined to see Obama more favorably. However, Republicans do not see Bush as a liability. In 2008, when Bush was highly unpopular and Obama tried hard to campaign against his legacy, Republican presidential candidate John McCain insisted that he was no President Bush. Independent voters agreed. Polls and focus groups clearly showed that Americans were more interested in discussing the challenges ahead than in turning the election into an opportunity to evaluate the legacy of a president whose name was not in the ballot.

Since he is the incumbent and his name is on the ballot, President Obama will be judged against his record. The legacy of his first term will be a hotly debated issue of the 2012 campaign. Even if they try to blame the Bush administration for some of the problems Obama inherited, Democrats will not be able to use the highly negative assessment Americans have of the Bush years as a weapon against the Republican presidential candidate. Bush is part of history. Obama is very much the present.


As they prepare for the 2012 election, Republicans have reneged on significant components of the Bush legacy. Though they fully embrace tough positions on national defense (and high military spending) and advocate for tax cuts, Republicans have bluntly abandoned their former support of large fiscal deficits ran by the Bush administration. After Bush left the White House, Republicans have become born-again fiscal conservatives. Democrats have enthusiastically campaigned against this sudden change of heart, accusing Republicans of a double-standard. When in office, Republicans spend lavishly and pile up fiscal deficits year after year. When in the opposition, they become fiscal conservatives. Yet, voters seem to make a clear distinction—even if unjust in the Democrats’ view—between the Republican Party of irresponsible spending of the Bush years and the fiscally conservative Republican Party of 2011.


The fact that none of the leading Republican presidential candidates was a close associate of former President Bush has helped Republicans succeed in presenting themselves as champions of fiscal conservatism. Ironically, Rick Perry, the Republican presidential candidate who might be most damaged by the comparisons to George W. Bush is the one that least deserves them. Perry was not close to Bush before he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Texas in 1998. In fact, in that campaign, Perry had a notorious public confrontation with Karl Rove, then Governor’s Bush main political strategist. During the Bush years, Perry was not among the favorite Republican governors in the White House. Though relationships with President Bush were cordial, he was never considered for a cabinet position nor was he seen as an ally by Bush’s close advisors.  While Bush came from a wealthy and traditional Republican family and, after attending Yale University, made a career in the business sector, Perry was originally from a middle class family in Texas and took pride in his non-oligarchic origins.  Still, for many voters, the comparison is inevitable. Bush became President when he was governor of Texas. His reputation of being anything but intellectually curious is also often also used to describe Perry. Perry’s proximity to the energy industry and his ability to raise tons of money in campaign contributions also make him comparable to former President Bush.


Most Republican candidates share conservative views. In that sense, they are all comparable to former President Bush. Yet, as they prepare to challenge Obama in 2012, they do not need to worry too much about the negative assessment Americans have of the Bush legacy. Fortunately for Republicans, Americans are always eager to have their former presidents’ legacies discussed by historians and to focus instead on the challenges ahead and on the personal record of current presidential candidates.  For Obama, though it might be a tempting idea, campaigning against Bush in 2012 will not be a good strategy.