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Republican convention seeks a break from Bush’s years

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — The Republican convention may occasionally dip into the weeds this week, but it will do its best to stay away from the Bushes — as in former President George W. Bush, who still casts a long shadow over the party he led for a rocky eight-year tenure.

Mr. Bush won't be speaking at the three-day convention, nor will his father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president. With the exception of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, there are no other major speakers whose main credentials spring from their time with the younger Mr. Bush and the latest Republican administration.

That contrasts deeply with Democrats, who have invited both living former Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to speak at their convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week.

"President 43 and President 41 understand there's a time for ex-presidents to speak and a time for them to stand down," said Bradley A. Blakeman, a senior staffer in Mr. Bush's first term. "I think George W. Bush is showing his class and his leadership by allowing [GOP nominee] Mitt Romney to take it to Obama and for Romney to lead the party."

Polls show Mr. Bush is the most unpopular living president and, at least policywise, the Republican Party is trying to run as fast as it can from many of the major moves of Mr. Bush's years — in particular the sizable debt racked up during his two terms and the Medicare prescription-drug entitlement program he pushed into law.

Mr. Bush also continues to cast a shadow over politics, with his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts serving as the chief battlefield in the fight Mr. Obama is waging with Mr. Romney and congressional Republicans over raising taxes on the wealthy.

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who has watched Mr. Bush's complex relationship with the GOP over the years, said leaving him out of the convention also tamps down lingering bad feelings among some Republicans who say he led the party astray, both politically and philosophically.

"He wasn't a bad president, but he wasn't a good president either, and he governed a hell of a lot more like a moderate Democrat than a conservative Republican, and for better or for worse, this convention is a conservative Republican convention," Mr. McKenna said.

As much as the Romney camp may want to avoid mention of Mr. Bush altogether, the weather and the media made that impossible.

With a hurricane bearing down on New Orleans, the Tampa Bay Times and Politico led their front-page election coverage section with a story subtitled: "For Republicans, the threat of Isaac raises the specter of the White House's failure after Katrina."

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, and for many voters, the botched federal response came to symbolize Mr. Bush's tenure.

Three years later, another storm, Hurricane Gustav, helped Republicans ease Mr. Bush off the stage ahead of the 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minn. Saying he needed to monitor the storm response from Washington, Mr. Bush bowed out of his Monday night speaking slot.

Instead, he made a brief address by video just after a speech by his wife, Laura.

"The McCain people made it clear they didn't want him at the convention and 'manning the Oval Office' was a convenient excuse," said Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter.

He said Bush aides were not happy about being ushered out.

Mr. Latimer said the Romney campaign's decision to exclude Mr. Bush wouldn't fool any voters, and that the move seemed to be driven by polls.

"He was the last Republican president and was elected to two terms. [Mr. Romney] thinks Americans forgot that? What would the Romney people do if Ann Romney didn't poll well?" Mr. Latimer said.

But Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said it was better not to have Mr. Bush at the convention, both because Democrats would use his presence as a way to try to tie Mr. Romney to the former president, and because it could change the convention's goal of highlighting contrasts between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama.

Still, Mr. Inhofe said there is reason to think that Mr. Bush's reputation will continue to rise as voters compare his record with that of Mr. Obama over the past four years.

"George Bush may have looked pretty bad a couple years ago, but he looks a lot better today," said Mr. Inhofe, who is poised to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee should Republicans gain control of the Senate in November.

The Bush legacy isn't completely absent from the convention. Ms. Rice will speak, as will Sen. Rob Portman, who served as Mr. Bush's trade ambassador and budget director before winning his Senate seat in Ohio.

Mr. Bush's younger brother Jeb, who was two-term Florida governor, also will address the delegates here.

Mr. McKenna said Jeb Bush earned his spot by being a "tremendously popular figure" among Florida Republicans and the broader conservative movement.

"If his last name was Jones instead of Bush, he would be accepting the nomination right now," Mr. McKenna said. "I don't think there's a doubt in anybody's mind that he could be a great, great president."

As for the contrast between Democrats' and Republicans' treatment of their former presidents, Mr. Blakeman said having Mr. Carter speak at the Democratic convention was "a gift" to Republicans. He said it will highlight the tough economic circumstances both Mr. Carter and Mr. Obama faced — and will contrast them with the boom times of the Clinton years.

"Clinton is going to remind the Democrats of what they like, and Carter's going to remind them of what they've got. It's a terrible contrast," he said.

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