Looking for a fresh sign that GOP confidence is reaching full tilt? Try this one on for size: George W. Bush appears to be making a comeback.
The thought was unthinkable just a few months ago. But, whether it helps or hurts GOP prospects this fall, that's what is happening -- just in time for Republicans to start trying to claim the former president's mantle and "restore his legacy" in 2012.
Mitt Romney told conservatives last weekend that he's "convinced" history will judge Bush "far more kindly."
One possible contender for that role emerged this week in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a former Bush budget director whose 2012 aspirations plummeted alongside the president's second-term approval ratings. Saddled with Bush's declining fortunes, Daniels pre-emptively ruled out a 2012 bid last year. But over the weekend, Daniels told the Washington Post that he has decided to "stay open to the idea" of a 2012 bid because, as he later told National Journal, "lots and lots of people have said, 'Please, don't just, don't say never, never, never.'" One of his key advisers, he readily admitted, is none other than George Bush.
Candidly, Daniels still doesn't sound like someone who feels the fire in the belly. "I'm not doing it," he told local reporters this week. "I'll tell you honestly: My bathroom mirror has never had a president of the United States in it, ever."
The governor -- whose red state turned blue in 2008 but will likely host one of this year's most competitive Senate races -- said that, regardless of his own plans, he thinks the era of Bush-bashing is over. "I'm not surprised that the juice ran out of the thing.... You can only play these tunes so long," Daniels told National Journal. "Many, many administrations which left office with a low reputation were later seen as much more successful. And I personally think that'll happen eventually" for Bush.
Recent polls are mixed on how much the public's attitude toward Bush has improved. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll out this month showed Bush's approval at 38 percent, down 3 points from last October, while a January CNN/Opinion Research poll showed that 43 percent of voters approved of him, up 9 points since last August. Both polls, however, show an overall uptick for Bush, whose approval rating hovered in the mid-20s before he left office 13 months ago.
Going even further than Daniels to claim the Bush mantle, or at least to defend it, is Mitt Romney (R), who told conservatives last weekend that he's "convinced" history will judge Bush "far more kindly."
"It's wearing so thin that even the late night shows make fun of it," Romney said of the Democratic playbook attacking Bush. Bush, he added, "pulled us from a deepening recession following the attack of 9/11, he overcame teachers unions to test school children and evaluate schools, he took down the Taliban, waged a war against the jihadists and was not afraid to call it what it is -- a war, and he kept us safe."
Romney was, of course, preaching to the choir. But his remarks before the Conservative Political Action Conference did mark a notable shift from those he made before last year's CPAC conference, when he blamed Bush for the GOP's slow start on tackling the recession. "I wish the president would have laid [a stimulus package] out before he left office, so that in September, October, November, December, there would have been a stimulus plan," Romney told Politico at the time.
Also, in 2008, just days before the Iowa caucuses, Romney said the Bush administration was "under-prepared for what occurred [in the Iraq war], understaffed, under planned, and, in some respects, under managed."
So, is the Bush brand really back? And if so, who will carry the family's banner into 2012? For the real answer, we'll have to ask Bush. Not the one named George, perhaps. The one named Jeb.