“America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,” Bush said in Dallas. “As our nation debates the proper course of action related to immigration I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”
Bush is even a presence in the current high-stakes budget negotiations between Capitol Hill and the White House. Although the tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration for the wealthiest Americans have been a major sticking point, the tax policy it put in place for the vast majority of households has bipartisan support.
“When you consider that the Obama administration is talking about not whether to extend the Bush tax cuts but how much of them to extend, you see that Bush is still setting the agenda,” said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who worked on Bush’s 2004 campaign.
While a possible presidential bid by Jeb Bush heightens the impact of his brother’s evolving legacy, it’s not unusual for a president’s image to change after leaving office. (Look at former President Clinton, who enjoyed positive ratings during most of his presidency, infuriated Obama supporters during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, and emerged after the election as a better Democratic spokesman than Obama.) Gallup pegged Bush’s presidential approval at 25 percent at the end of his second term, the lowest ranking since Richard Nixon. But after President Obama spearheaded unpopular spending packages and health care reforms, Bush’s popularity began to tick up.
A Bloomberg News survey in late September showed Bush’s favorability at 46 percent, 3 points higher than Romney’s rating. Still, with a majority of voters viewing the former president unfavorably, Romney rarely, if ever, mentioned his name during the campaign. Asked to address the differences between him and the former president in one of the debates, Romney said, “I’m going to get us to a balanced budget. President Bush didn’t.” Obama seized on the comparison, taking the unusual tack of praising the Republican successor he had vilified in his first campaign to portray Romney as an extremist.
“George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher,” Obama said. “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation. George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.”
Democrats and moderate Republicans found themselves cheering for Bush, if only for a moment. A majority of voters said that Bush is more to blame for the current economic problems than Obama, according to exit polling. If Bush wasn’t the bigger scapegoat, Obama may not have won a second term.
Veterans of Bush’s campaigns and administrations say that while learning from his mistakes, Republicans should also take note of the political risks he took by proposing reforms to immigration and education laws and boosting funding for community health centers and AIDS outreach in Africa.
“One of the issues we ran into in the 2012 campaign is that there weren’t a lot of differences between Mitt Romney and Republican orthodoxy,” said Terry Nelson, Bush’s political director in the 2004 campaign. “I think that’s something Republican candidates in the future have to consider. The public respects it when you can show you can stand up to your party on certain issues. Bush did that.”