- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

President George W. Bush’s shadow still hangs over the Republican Party four years after he left office, and as conservatives converge on the Washington region this week they will find themselves once again grappling with his legacy — more so now that his younger brother, Jeb, is flirting with a 2016 presidential bid and has been invited to address the annual gathering.

Indeed, while the older brother has his defenders, particularly among defense hawks, the lineup at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which kicks off Thursday, is filled with speakers who decry much of his legacy: the spending, the overseas adventurism and, maybe most importantly, President Obama.

“There are still those, especially at this gathering, within the conservative movement who view George W. Bush very kindly and believe history will treat him considerably better than he has been treated in the short term,” said Charlie Gerow, an American Conservative Union board member. “There are others, myself included, who believe George W. Bush was a disappointment.

“I think that the Republican Party of today has realized the mistakes that were made during that period and has refound its soul and intends to act based upon that,” Mr. Gerow said.

The 2013 CPAC gathering at National Harbor, a new location just outside the Capital Beltway in Prince George’s County, will showcase rising stars of the conservative movement, including new leaders such as Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — all potential 2016 presidential contenders, and all of whom emerged in the post-Bush elections of 2010 and 2012.

The three-day event also gives grass-roots conservatives a chance to regroup from the 2012 election, where Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — who is also speaking this year — suffered from the fact that many conservatives thought him too close to Mr. Bush’s stances and staffers.

Exit polls showed voters continue to blame Mr. Bush for the nation’s current economic problems — by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin over Mr. Obama.

But Jeb Bush downplays the notion that his brother is a drag politically — including on himself.

“I don’t think there’s any Bush baggage at all,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said that being part of the Bush clan is a “mixed bag” and said that the pluses could outweigh the minuses for the younger brother.

“No family has as an attractive Rolodex as the Bush family does with thousands of loyal followers,” Mr. Cardenas said, adding that it is hard to think of anyone else starting out with such a level of support. “Overall, one will have to admit that it is a positive.”

Angelo Codevilla, a Boston University professor of international relations who is on a CPAC panel about the cost of war, disagreed, saying that the former Florida governor should be “smart enough to know that the name ‘Bush‘ is poison in American politics today.”

“The left hates him and nobody on the right really likes him,” Mr. Codevilla said, referring to the former president. “If somehow the Republican Party was to nominate Jeb Bush, you would have the final defeat of the Republican Party. The Republican Party would cease to exist.”

Bush defenders say the former president should be remembered for his response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the fact that there hasn’t been another major successful attack on the U.S.

They also point out that he nominated two conservatives, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., for the Supreme Court, and enacted the largest tax cut in history — the majority of which Congress made permanent earlier this year.

Mr. Cardenas said that Mr. Bush faced a difficult balancing act after Sept. 11, with the first allegiance being to the defense side of the conservative equation.

“He inherited a country that quickly faced the wrath of international terrorism and an attack on our own soil and the billions of dollars it cost to wage a fight against that,” Mr. Cardenas said. “By the time his tenure was over, he had helped amass a national debt that was troubling to conservatives. Take a closer look at it and conservatives will realize that it was part of a grand bargain to provide the social programs Democrats wanted with his effort to fight the war.”

His critics, though, say Mr. Bush shirked the Constitution in order to prosecute the war on terrorism, expanded federal authority over education through the No Child Left Behind Act and the economy through the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, and saddled the country with a new entitlement program in Medicare’s prescription drug policy.

On his watch, the national debt increased from $5.73 trillion to $10.63 trillion.

Bush added to the debt during his years more than all other presidents before and started a war that he had no idea about finishing,” Mr. Codevilla said. “The Bush legacy is Obama. The Bush legacy is the trouble that this nation is in. Obama should be blamed for much of it, but, in fact, he is simply following in the footsteps of his predecessor.”

All of those Bush-era programs had the backing of Republican congressional leaders, including current House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — all of whom are featured guests at CPAC.

But those leaders often find themselves in open warfare with the grass-roots conservatives and tea partyers who have begun to push back against the Bush-era policies, and who sent new troops to Washington in 2010 and 2012, including Mr. Paul, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“There has been a wholesale rejection of the idea that spending does not really matter, and that smaller government is not really an important goal,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican consultant. “The reality is that in many ways, the focus on shrinking the size and reach of the federal government may be the only thing on which all Republicans agree. Let’s try a thought experiment. Can you imagine this Republican Party voting for the prescription drug benefit? Of course not.”

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