Where's W? Mixed legacy of Bush years hovers over RNC
TAMPA — Where is George W. Bush? The last Republican president was a no-show at the Republican convention this week. And the party that he led for eight years barely mentioned him — or his record. Nevertheless, Bush's fiscal legacy — including hundreds of billions spent on two wars that helped balloon the federal deficit — loomed large over the gathering, as Republicans tried to make the case that the GOP was the party of smaller government and restrained spending. Paul Ryan, for one, even lumped Bush in with President Barack Obama, blaming both for the nation's tenuous fiscal condition."In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP or less," Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, said as he accepted the vice presidential nomination Wednesday. The legacy of the Bush years complicates Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's case against Obama as both fight to win over an electorate frustrated by the nation's enormous debt and budget-busting deficits. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, likes to taunt Obama for presiding over the largest increase in the national debt of any U.S. president. It's up $5.3 trillion under Obama — in large part because of the recession and expensive efforts to revive the economy. But Bush's record isn't far behind with a $4.9 trillion increase over his eight years in office. Republicans unhappy with Bush's fiscal record often cite the Republican's financial industry bailout in 2008, a whopping $700 billion, as akin to stimulus and bailout programs under Obama. They seldom complain about his huge tax cuts, which also drove up the red ink. "People soured on him, it's true," said Ranae Lentz, an Ohio delegate. "But we're not here to discuss what's old. We're here to discuss what's new." Bush declined an invitation to appear at the convention, likely mindful of the need for the party to turn the page and the political headaches his appearance could have created for Romney in a race that polls show is close just 10 weeks before Election Day. There are signs Bush fatigue lingers in the electorate. In May, a CNN/ORC poll found 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Bush. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found Americans still blame Bush more than Obama for the country's current economic problems, 54 percent to 32 percent. Romney aides dismissed questions of whether Romney had worked to downplay Bush's legacy or had instructed convention speakers to limit references to Bush. Few — if any — uttered his name. That included his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, whose formal speech got a rousing reception from the crowd. Rice generally spoke of her own experiences and only indirectly praised him for a shift in the nation's approach to terrorism that endures today after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. "I will never forget the bright September day," she said. "From that day on, our sense of vulnerability and our understanding of security would be altered forever." Delegates rose to their feet and cheered, a sign her eight years with Bush had not dampened the GOP's affection for her. To be sure, Romney's convention planners made sure to give a respectful nod to the Bush family in a five-minute video that featured interview clips with Bush, and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and their wives. The crowd in the forum warmly cheered when the images of the father-and-son former presidents seated beside each other appeared on the video screens in the arena. In the video, the elder Bush said of his son, "I think the thing I take pride in is the integrity." The younger Bush's wife Laura added: "I'm so proud of George." Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was scheduled to address the convention today. "This election is about the future of this nation," he said in an excerpt provided in advance of his remarks. Beyond the video and positive feelings from some delegates there were plenty of Bush-era reminders — awkward ones. Memories of his heavily criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina were revived by the uncanny timing of Hurricane Isaac's landfall in Louisiana nearly seven years to the day after the hurricane devastated New Orleans. The large, fast-ticking "debt clock" prominent on the convention hall wall was as much a reminder of spending woes under a Republican administration as a Democratic one. "Let's face it, George W. Bush didn't do us conservatives a lot of favors by the end of his administration," said James Smack, a Nevada delegate to the convention. Others talked more fondly of Bush — when asked about him. "I have tremendous respect for President Bush," said Robyn Johnson of Wichita, Kansas. "He led our country during difficult times." Bush is not the first past president whose mere name has had the potential to cause trouble for the nominee; both parties have struggled with how to handle recent former presidents. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton — who had been impeached — spoke at the Democratic National Convention but was marginalized by nominee Al Gore during the campaign. Clinton's standing improved over time. By 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had embraced Clinton's economic legacy. Next week, Clinton, who already is appearing in an ad for Obama, gets the main spotlight Wednesday night at the Democratic convention.