Byline: Howard Kurtz
The top GOP candidates were Bush backers--and are running from his legacy as fast as they can.
Remember George W. Bush? It doesn't seem all that long ago that he was the revered leader of the Republican Party: a paragon of courage, scourge of terrorists, champion of neglected schoolkids. But now GOP candidates seem to be running against him almost as aggressively as they're running against his Democratic successor. They reject his brand of "compassionate" conservatism and vow to shrink a government that became bloated on his watch. Bush ran the country for eight tumultuous years, but his tenure is being treated like a bender from which the party is still hung over.
Dan Bartlett, Bush's White House counselor, says GOP contenders are simply currying favor with "the harder-core conservative constituency that's the dominant power broker in the Republican Party now." As for the former president, "Does he like people mischaracterizing and demonizing his record? He'd prefer it not to happen."
But it happens again and again. Rick Santorum regularly apologizes for voting in favor of Bush's No Child Left Behind law, and has drawn flak for saying he had to "take one for the team." No one wants to be on that team right now, not in a supercharged environment where the Republican right has made even birth control an issue. Santorum boasted at one debate that he had pushed for tougher sanctions against Iran and for that reason had "President Bush oppose me for two years."
Mitt Romney, for his part, has been hammered for siding with Bush on rescuing Wall Street through the TARP bailout. He hasn't exactly turned on Bush, but he has been forced to proclaim repeatedly in his own defense that the economy was facing a "complete collapse." Romney has mollified the base by adopting a hard line on illegal immigration, in sharp contrast to Bush's unsuccessful proposal to grant temporary legal status to millions of undocumented workers. Bush's position would be hooted off the debate stage in 2012.
"It saddens me he doesn't get the acclaim on the stump," says Ari Fleischer, Bush's former spokesman. After all, Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich (as a member of Bush's Defense Policy Board) backed the decision to invade Iraq. And they all supported the budget-busting Medicare prescription-drug program …