There is a reason Republicans are so afraid of continuing their convention while a storm slams the Gulf Coast, and a reason many voters are cool to Mitt Romney’s economic plan, and a reason Romney seems so not relatable for a GOP presidential nominee. All those reasons share the same name: George W. Bush.
Bush is The Man Who Isn’t Here in Tampa—the person who was jarringly absent from the speakers’ roster even before Hurricane Isaac truncated the schedule. His shadow hangs over the proceedings.
When Bush left the White House, a Gallup Poll showed nearly three in five Americans believed history would judge him a poor or below-average president—a judgment even more harsh than the one rendered on Richard Nixon when he resigned the presidency.
Bush has largely eschewed the national spotlight over the last three and a half years. Absence has not made the electorate grow fonder. A CNN poll in June found that Bush had the lowest favorability ratings of any living president. More than half of voters surveyed last week by ABC News and The Washington Post continue to blame him for the nation’s current economic woes, compared with a third who blame President Obama.
The lingering distaste deflects from Obama some of voters’ anger over the historically abysmal recovery. It also complicates Romney’s attempts to clear the invisible wall that strategists say stands between him and a commanding lead in this election—the question of whether he offers a viable alternative to Obama on the economy.
Romney’s economic plan overlaps with Bush’s in big ways by arguing that tax cuts and deregulation are the tickets to growth. The Obama campaign has yoked the Bush and Romney approaches together in television ads—one featuring the president and the other former President Clinton—casting the race as a choice between giving Obama more time or returning to failed past policies.
Romney and his campaign shun the comparisons but offer little to rebut them. Asked by NBC News last month how his plans differed from Bush’s policies, Romney repeated the key planks of his economic plan—including lower taxes, more oil drilling, and fewer federal regulations, all Bush staples—and concluded, “My policies are very different than anything you’ve seen in the past.”
When a team of economists advising Romney assembled a nearly 4,000-word white paper supporting his plan, they wrote about the success of tax cuts and deregulation under Ronald Reagan. They never mention the George W. Bush years, even though three of the four economists worked in his administration.
And as Isaac headed toward Louisiana, many Republicans were flashing back uncomfortably to Bush’s much-maligned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some Republicans doubt the Bush-Romney comparisons will stop Romney from winning among the huge majority of voters whom polls show disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy.
“The ability to govern/‘make Washington work,’ the debt levels, and the need for spending reforms were not central to the Bush era,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, and a top adviser to GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. “If the issue set remains focused on the fundamental reforms—tax reform, Medicare reform, Medicaid reform—needed to generate growth and control debt, it will not be a problem.”
Romney’s second potential Bush problem is that he appears to lack some of the ability to connect with voters that vaulted Bush to victory in 2000 and 2004.
Ten percent fewer voters believe Romney demonstrates “strong personal character” than believed the same of Bush in 2000, according to ABC/Post polls. A CBS/New York Times poll out on Tuesday showed that half of respondents said that Romney does not understand the problems of people like them. If Romney wants to win, he may need to convince voters that he’s as compassionate as they thought Bush was—but a different kind of conservative.