George W. Bush left office less than three years ago, but for the Republicans seeking to fill his shoes as the next president, the mere mention of his name has been all but absent.
Since the first broadly attended debate at St. Anselm College on June 13, the contenders have logged about 20 hours facing off against one another across 10 debates, and have mentioned their former party leader just 16 times.
Wipe away the instances in which Mitt Romney was talking about Mr. Bush as governor, not president, and the number dips to just a dozen mentions - including times when the candidates were trying to stress their differences with the 43rd president.
“Nobody is writing a story about this guy was president just 2 1/2 years ago. It wasn’t like he was president four decades ago. But he was banished to the Siberia of American politics,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist. “Nobody wants to be near him. Nobody wants to talk about him. Nobody wants to utter his name.”
Since leaving office in 2009, Mr. Bush has kept a low profile in national politics, though he is expected to speak via video to a World AIDS Day event Thursday along with President Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
But policies he pushed, including the Wall Street and auto-company bailouts and the record deficits he notched, continue to cast a shadow over the election and are credited with helping give birth to the tea party movement that candidates more closely adhere to now.
While the majority of the field has expressed some level of support for Mr. Bush’s Freedom Agenda - his use of enhanced interrogations of terrorist suspects and the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 - they have shied away from broaching his name.
In the most recent debate, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense under Mr. Bush, asked the candidates whether it was wise under the Bush administration to spend billions of dollars to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa and on the Millennium Challenge Corp. to encourage poor countries to pursue policies that promote economic growth.
Without mentioning his name, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania praised the effort, saying it was “absolutely essential for our national security.”
Otherwise, Mr. Bush has been the subject of drive-by mentions.
Mr. Romney said the auto bailout was wrong “whether it was by President Bush or by President Obama,” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the “fact is, in both the Bush and Obama administrations” the fix has been in at the Federal Reserve. Mr. Santorum claimed he is the most electable Republican because in the 2000 race he was the “only senator to win a state who is a conservative that George Bush lost.” Rep. Ron Paul of Texas applauded Mr. Bush for campaigning against nation-building during his 2000 presidential campaign.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Republican candidates “want to start out fresh, without having to carry Bush’s baggage.”
He said the treatment of Mr. Bush is similar to that of other presidents who seemed to drag on their parties.
“The Democrats didn’t mention Carter very much in 1984, 1988 and 1992 because he was an electoral burden,” Mr. Sabato said. “Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for 40 years. Bush will be a pariah for at least one more election.”
Even if Mr. Bush isn’t front and center in the GOP debates, his former staffers were - at least at last week’s affair in Washington, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Of the 13 questions from the audience to the candidates, four came from former administration officials, including Mr. Wolfowitz; David S. Addington, who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff; Mike Gonzalez, who served at the State Department and Securities and Exchange Commission; and Marc A. Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for Mr. Bush.