PERRY, Iowa — A funny thing happened recently in the presidential campaign in Iowa: The last Republican president’s name actually surfaced.
“We’ve had, in the past, a couple of presidents from Texas that said they weren’t interested in wars … like George W. Bush,” a voter said to Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who has been sharply critical of U.S. military entanglements overseas. “My question is: How can we trust another Texan?”
It was an odd, almost discordant moment in a GOP contest where Bush, a two-term president who left office just three years ago, has gone all but unmentioned. While the candidates routinely lionize Ronald Reagan and blame President Barack Obama for the nation’s economic woes, none has been eager to embrace the Bush legacy of gaping budget deficits, two wars and record low approval ratings — or blame him for the country’s troubles either.
“Republicans talk a lot about losing their way during the last decade, and when they do they’re talking about the Bush years,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College. “For Republicans, the Bush administration has become the ‘yadda yadda yadda’ period of American history.”
The eight-year Bush presidency has merited no more than a fleeting reference in televised debates and interviews. When it does surface it’s often a point of criticism, as when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told CNN on Sunday that he regretted voting for the No Child Left Behind education law Bush championed.
The former president himself has been all but invisible since leaving office in 2009 with a Gallup approval rating of just 34 percent. His predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, had a 66 percent approval rating in early 2001 when he stepped down after two terms marred by a sex scandal and impeachment.
In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the weak economy, government spending and the $15 trillion federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which Bush administration policies contributed to those problems. Republicans also controlled Congress for six of the eight years Bush was in the White House, clearing the way for many of his policies to be enacted.
There is no question that Obama’s policies, including the federal stimulus program and the auto industry bailout, have swollen the deficit and deepened the debt. And three years into his presidency, Obama often falls back on complaints about the bad situation he inherited when seeking to defend his own economic performance.
But while Obama may be overly eager to blame the Bush years for the nation’s problems, GOP presidential contenders seem just as eager to pretend those years never happened.
Taking office in 2001 with a balanced federal budget and a surplus, Bush quickly pushed through sweeping tax cuts that were not offset by spending cuts. The tax cuts have cost about $1.8 trillion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Bush tax cuts were set to expire after 10 years, but Obama allowed them to remain in place temporarily in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks never were budgeted and have cost taxpayers about $1.4 trillion so far. Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq in December, but the Afghanistan conflict will extend into 2014.
Bush signed legislation in 2003 enacting a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors — a huge entitlement program projected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program widely loathed by many conservatives, was another Bush-era program. Congress authorized nearly $700 billion for the program at the recommendation of Bush’s treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson, in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis in the fall of 2008. As a presidential candidate, Obama supported the TARP bailout, as did his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain.
To be sure, today’s GOP candidates occasionally acknowledge that not all was perfect pre-Obama.
“The reason we find ourselves in the problem today is because we had Republicans and Democrats — you couldn’t tell the difference in the way they were spending,” Rick Perry told a campaign audience in Cedar Rapids.
The Texas governor has been sharply critical of Congress, insisting he would bring an outsider’s perspective to tackling the nation’s economic woes as president.
Others have also tried to distance themselves from Washington and, by implication, the Bush years.
Mitt Romney stresses his experience as a businessman and as Massachusetts governor. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman talks up his background as a chief executive. Newt Gingrich reminds voters that he presided over a balanced budget as speaker of the House during the Clinton years.
Santorum’s surge into top-tier contention has sparked complaints from rivals about his votes on spending. Among other things, he voted in favor of the Medicare prescription drug program.
Bush still has loyal supporters who believe his legacy will be vindicated by history. But even they say the GOP field won’t be embracing him anytime soon.
“Sad to say, they’re looking at polling data that indicates they’re better off not bringing him into the campaign,” former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said. “I think President Bush has made America a safer nation and better nation and I’m proud of it. But politics isn’t about what’s fair, it’s about winning.”
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Cedar Rapids contributed to this report.