Bush To Blame For Weak GOP Field?

Is George Bush to blame for a weak Republican field almost four years after he left office? Not entirely.

CBS News is out with a poll this morning which says that, even at this point, a majority of Republicans surveyed want more choices in their Presidential field:

The nominating process may officially be underway, but Republicans have yet to enthusiastically embrace a potential nominee for president – and despite the late date, most would like to see other candidates enter the race, according to a new CBS News poll.

The survey finds that 58 percent of Republican primary voters want more presidential choices, while just 37 percent say they are satisfied with the current field. The percentage of Republican primary voters that wants more choices has increased 12 percentage points since October.

Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the nomination, has struggled to break 30 percent support in state and local polls in an election cycle that has seen multiple candidates move ahead of Romney in the polls before seeing their support erode. In this national survey, taken after Romney’s narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor leads the field – though he holds just 19 percent support. Only 28 percent of GOP primary voters say they’ve made up their mind, and just 20 percent who’ve made a choice strongly favor their candidate.

It’s mathematically possible for another candidate to enter the race as late as early February and still win enough delegates to take the nomination, though some deadlines for candidates to get on state ballots have already passed, including those in delegate-rich Virginia and Illinois. A late entry into the GOP race would come with potentially-overwhelming obstacles, including the need to instantly build a national campaign apparatus and do the hard work of getting on state ballots in an extremely compressed time period.

The list of prominent Republicans who have announced they would not seek the presidency this cycle include Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan and Haley Barbour.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Regardless of how one calculates the mathematics of the issue, there is no way that any more candidates are getting into the race at this point. The reasons for this have been discussed extensively by James Joyner and myself in previous posts, so I’ll just refer you to those. It may be fun for political reporters to speculate about how such a thing could possibly happen, but realistically it just isn’t absent something truly extraordinary, like one of the leading candidates suddenly being caught in a major scandal or dying. So, if you’re looking for that kind of scenario, go watch a West Wing rerun.

Nonetheless, the Republican candidates cannot seem to shake the impression that they are part of an extraordinarily weak field, and it’s kind of hard to argue that they aren’t. When was the last time five of the seven declared major candidates failed to qualify for the ballot in any state, never mind a major primary state like Virginia? When was the last time we saw a Republican race where so many different people rose and fell from the polls in such a short period of time? Maybe you can blame it on a selectorate that can’t make up their mind, but with so many potentially strong candidates sitting it out this year the idea that this is a weak field is pretty persuasive.

Over at The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza believes he’s found the primary culprit for the Republican Party’s troubles:

More than anyone else Bush is responsible for decimating the ranks of qualified Republicans who could take on Obama. A successful Presidency can produce a new crop of future Presidential candidates for the party that controls the White House. The vice president and cabinet officials, as well as governors and senators elected over the course of the administration, are historically major sources for a party’s next round of candidates. The Bush years had the opposite effect. It was unthinkable that his vice president would run for higher office and much of his cabinet left Washington tainted by the President’s unpopularity. Moreover, Bush helped sink his party in the 2006 and 2008 elections, thus depleting the ranks of potential Republican candidates for 2012.

The Republican Party rebounded in 2010, but it will take longer than two years for many Presidential-caliber candidates to emerge after the wreckage of the late Bush years.

I’m by no means a fan of George W. Bush, but I think Lizza is being at least a little harsh on the former President here. For one thing, it wasn’t his fault alone that Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and then lost more seats in 2008. Surely public disdain for the Iraq War played a role in the rejection of Republican candidates in both years, but there was more to it than that. Without question, the Republican Congress itself played a role in its downfall. Whatever credibility they had when they took over Congress in 1995, by 2006 the Republican leadership had pretty much decided their own fate. Not only had they fallen out of touch with the public in general, but they had mostly lost the Republican base itself thanks to a half decade of power in which they went along with President Bush’s plans to increase spending, fight two wars, and not raise taxes, a fiscal equation that quite simply cannot be balanced. By 2008, the economy had tanked and voters were just ready to continue cleaning house and hand even larger majorities to the Democrats. To the extent that the pool of possible Presidential candidates was decimated by the Congressional losses in 2006 and 2008, that’s the responsibility of both Bush and the Republicans in Congress, not just Bush himself.

Lizza is also mistaken when he looks to the cabinet and Congress as the pool from which potential Presidential candidates are drawn. At least for Republicans, it’s been more common that candidates for President come from the pool of Governors, or the Vice-Presidency.  Even if the Bush Administration’s approval ratings had not been in the tank from 2006 onward, there was never a chance that Dick Cheney was going to be a candidate for President. His health issues simply would not have allowed it. Perhaps one can blame Bush for not being more forward looking in selecting in running mate in 2000 by selecting someone who could potentially succeed him, but at the time Bush’s selection of Cheney seemed like a good idea and was generally very well received. Nobody knew at the time that we wouldn’t be getting the Dick Cheney who served as Defense Secretary in the first Bush Administration but rather some Machiavellian hybrid. So here too, I think Lizza gets it slightly wrong because Bush’s successor was never likely to come from the Cabinet or Congress anyway.

Lizza is correct in one respect, though. Thanks mostly to his own incompetence and bad decision making when it came to issues like Iraq, but also due to the fact that he presided over the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, George Bush did serious damage to the Republican brand that still has not been fully repaired. The 2010 election results deceived many Republicans into thinking that they are back in the good graces of the public, but frustration with the economy and the President aren’t the same thing as an endorsement of the GOP. One need only look at the polls showing public approval of Congress in single digits to see that. Furthermore, the Obama White House would not be planning a campaign based on running against the Republican Congress unless they had research showing that it was an advantageous line of attack. Clearly, the damage that the GOP suffered due to the Bush years has not been repaired fully, and has perhaps only been made worse by the mis-steps over the past year by Republican leaders in Congress.

Some Republicans realize this and they also realize that the GOP is still in the middle of an internecine battle to figure out which way it goes from here. The results of that battle can be seen in the Republican race so far where you have a Republican base randomly jumping from one gadfly candidate to another in an effort stop Mitt Romney, who only four years ago was seen as a conservative savior. Instead of turning to competence, the GOP selectorate spent the last year turning from one “starburst” candidate to another, making their party look like a laughing stock in the process (999? Seriously?) Is it any wonder that more experienced Republicans would want to stay on the sidelines of such a battle?

So, no, George Bush isn’t totally to blame for the Republican Party’s travails in 2012, but his ghost haunts the party and will continue to do so until the Party itself decides to finally reject his legacy.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    The quality candidates aren’t sitting out because of Bush…they’re sitting out because of Obama.

  2. Someone also asked “where’s the Tea Party?”

    The post-Bush evolutions have been running a strange course. Even though I called the TP “shark jump,” their complete absence from the GOP primary story is a surprise to me.

    The not-Romney story line has been amusing, but it obviously shows an attempt to run every possible candidate and idea set up the flagpole.

    It’s strange. Romney might actually run an interesting campaign versus Obama, even while being a default choice. He’s the not-not-Romney.

  3. Let me change that. Romney is not a “default choice,” he is a “non-choice.”

  4. Hey Norm says:

    @ John…
    Interesting op-ed about the Tea Stain and Romney:
    The GOP primary is more OWS movement than the Tea Party…

  5. Boyd says:

    … but his ghost haunts the party and will continue to do so until the Party itself decides to finally reject his legacy.

    I’m curious which legacy you’re referring to, Doug, and what you think Republicans need to do to reject it. They don’t particularly appear to be clinging to anything particularly detrimental to them in the eyes of the public that I can think of. They’re still Republicans, of course, but I’m referring to things particular to President Bush.

  6. anjin-san says:

    I’m curious which legacy

    Torture as policy, surplus to debt, crashed economy, katrina, unfunded war of agression in Iraq…

    you are right, it was a golden age. we should put him on mt. rushmore

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    The GOP is basically a set of unattractive and dated neuroses which have been running on a loop since 1980. You have white resentment. You have mindless worship of an alleged free-market. You have the suspicion of liberals being soft on war, communism and terror. All of this worked for the weak candidates of 1980 and 2000. But now–for some reason–it’s a rather tough sell.

    So don’t blame the candidates.

  8. ed says:

    So, no, George Bush isn’t totally to blame for the Republican Party’s travails in 2012, but his ghost haunts the party and will continue to do so until the Party itself decides to finally reject his legacy.

    Maybe I’m rehashing what Boyd says above, but wouldn’t they first have to acknowledge the [disastrous in too many respects] Bush, Jr. Legacy* before they reject it? Both would be welcome developments, but admitting painful truths isn’t exactly one of the modern Republican party’s strong suits. Perhaps someone could ask these candidates how they feel about the Bush, Jr. Legacy.

    *technically this should be labeled the “Cheney-Rove Legacy”

  9. Boyd says:

    @anjin-san: If you want to talk like an adult, we might be able to get somewhere. Otherwise, don’t interrupt the grown-ups’ conversation.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Sorry Boyd, but if you wont acknowledge the myriad disasters that took place with Bush at the helm, I am afraid sarcasm is the only thing you merit in this conversation.

    BTW, the “grownups are speaking” thing was lame when people were using it in AOL chat rooms in 1999. It has not improved with age.

  11. john personna says:


    I’m curious which legacy you’re referring to, Doug,

    Obviously the big thing was how Bush retained strong Republican support while being a free spender, with a quick reversal after he was gone to “well, he wasn’t a real Republican anyway.”

    The Tea Party cycle was different, but similar. They are another group who were broadly supported (for their “ideas?”) before being forgotten.

    … lots of broken legacies.

  12. Boyd says:

    @anjin-san: Approach the conversation with some intellectual honesty, then. With the exception of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama has followed the policies of his predecessor in each of the areas you listed.

    And on top of your obfuscation, my question was to Doug, asking him what he meant in the quoted passage. I realize you regard yourself as omniscient, but I’d prefer for Doug to answer.

  13. David M says:


    Torture as policy, surplus to debt, crashed economy, katrina, unfunded war of agression in Iraq

    I’m pretty sure that’s a good list of policies where Obama differs from Bush, so I don’t think your point holds up at all. There may be other unfortunate policy similarities, but not these.

  14. anjin-san says:

    I realize you regard yourself as omniscient

    I think I am going to leave you to your adult conversation. If I want to induce a coma I can just hit myself over the head with a brick.

    But if you have time, please tell us how running record deficits and taking the economy to the brink of depression was a continuation of a Clinton policy. And I would be interested in the details of the waterboarding that took place when Clintion was President.

  15. @Boyd:

    I’m curious which legacy you’re referring to, Doug, and what you think Republicans need to do to reject it.

    Let’s see, there’s:

    1. The fiscal irresponsibility — Under Bush discretionary non-defense spending increased at a higher rate than any President since Lyndon Johnson. At the same time, he cut taxes and launched two wars without providing a funding mechanism other that Treasury Bonds. The Federal Budget will be paying the price for that mistake for quite some time.

    2. The big government philosophy — No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D being the most prominent examples

    3. The war against civil liberties — exemplified by the PATRIOT Act, which has been used more in non-terrorism cases than it has been used to gather evidence against anyone who might be plotting a terrorist attack

    4. The unwarranted expansion of the power of the Presidency — the Unitary Executive Theory, signing statements, and secret authorizations for activities which arguably violates international law

    5. Taking his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and fighting a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq.

    That’s just off the top of my head

  16. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: If President Obama doesn’t reject President Bush’s legacy on those topics, why should the Republican party?

  17. @Boyd:

    And, oh yea, Bush did all this while the majority of Republicans not only remained silent but acted as if the guy was the greatest thing since sliced bread when, in reality, he ranks somewhere near the bottom of the list of 43 men who have served as President.

  18. @Boyd:

    Well if they actually want to be a small-government party, they kind of have to.

    Since I know they aren’t it’s entirely optional from my point of view. I’ve never actually believed the Tea Party rhetoric was for real anyway

  19. PD Shaw says:

    Given that six of the last Republican Presidential primaries have been dominated by someone named Bush or Reagan and that Ryan leaves off one of the more credible non-candidates from his list, Jeb, I do wonder just as a matter of party structure and organization whether the party has been working only for a select few.

    Ross Douthat complained last Presidential election cycle that the Republicans weren’t doing enough to advance the national “name” of many of its attractive Republican Governors (and the Veep position is a good way to do this) I believe at the time he mentioned Jindal, Palin and Pawlenty; perhaps earlier this year he might have added Christy, Huntsman and Perry. Many of these have not blossomed in the national spotlight and I’m not sure why.

  20. MBunge says:

    “I believe at the time he mentioned Jindal, Palin and Pawlenty; perhaps earlier this year he might have added Christy, Huntsman and Perry. Many of these have not blossomed in the national spotlight and I’m not sure why.”

    I think that list of names is pertty self-explanatory.


  21. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Sorry, I don’t think your justifications match you original statements, but neither of us is going to convince the other, so I’m going to stop putting myself through the pain of commenting from a phone.

  22. Jib says:

    @Boyd: Because to kick out a sitting president you have to show what you would do different. So, if it is true, as you clearly believe it is, that there is no difference between Obama and Bush and the repub candidates on war and budget, then Obama wins re-election.

  23. john personna says:


    If President Obama doesn’t reject President Bush’s legacy on those topics, why should the Republican party?

    Oh my gosh, wrong on so many levels. Not least because that kind of idea shows a sort of cancer in the brain of the writer.

    I mean, it’s one thing to become cynical and apolitical, but how much cognitive dissonance to you need to make Obama’s supposed non-rejection an endorsement for ideas antithetical to the party!

  24. john personna says:


    I’m going to stop putting myself through the pain of commenting from a phone.

    Or maybe it registered how self-defeating your argument really was.

  25. ed says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I’ve never actually believed the Tea Party rhetoric was for real anyway

    Are you kidding? Those people are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more: Over at the Olde Country Buffet they’ve run out of tapioca! (OK, I ripped that off of Charlie Pierce.)

  26. David M says:

    I’d blame the GOP in general more than Bush in particular. As awful as Bush was, the GOP went along with it and still supports all his disastrous policy decisions. Although this isn’t really surprising at all, as dissenting from the party line is not allowed in the GOP, just look at how anything they currently disagree with is called “liberal”. This is one time the Democratic party would have an advantage, because they don’t require the same level of ideological rigidity as the GOP.

  27. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Boyd: You can’t deflect a legitimate criticism of your point by saying “the other guy did it, too.” It doesn’t work for Doug; I see no reason to give you a pass either.

    Stop the posturing and admit when you’ve mispoken–it’s the adult thing to do.

  28. Woody says:

    I’d also add that the relentless orthodoxy barrage on Fox has removed a lot of room to maneuver. As Fox Conservatism never fails – but can only be failed – every GOP national figure must conform or be accused of heresy (I believe this to be a major reason several qualified Republicans sat this election out).

    This began when Fox (and surrogates) began insisting that any criticism of President W. was expressly treason.

  29. Carson says:

    So now we are blaming the weak GOP field on Bush too?
    Americans are looking for a candidate who will bring some moral sanity and values to this country, doesn’t go around acting like he’s going to offend someone, and will restore family values. This country’s morals are going down the drain. There is no longer any personal responsibility, children and women are victims of violence, entertainers and “professional” athletes make millions of dollars a year while schools are falling apart and being closed, ceo’s are getting ever larger “bonuses” while laying off employees, entertainment is trash and embarrassing to parents, drug abuse is epidemic, politicians are openly having affairs, and the family structure has deteriorated beyond anything that could have been imagined just a few years ago. All signs of a nation that has forgotten the sacrifices and hard work of the generation that lived through a depression and won World War II.

  30. Liberty60 says:

    Meanwhile we have a President who is a loving devoted family man and faithful husband, who is fighting to rein in the predatory CEOs, continues the drug war, and has provded health insurance to millions of women and children.

    No wonder you are an Obama supporter!

  31. Carson says:

    @Liberty60: Well written and you made a good point.
    “Release the Kraken!”

  32. superdestroyer says:

    @David M:

    It is much easier for the big spending party to be a big tent party. When are all of the core groups in the Democratic Party are getting their goodies from the government, those groups will not pick fights with each others (See blacks versus open border Hispanics who are economically at odds with each other but get along in order to have access to the $3.5 trillion that the federal government has to pass out.

    Why else do you think Karl Rove encouraged the Republicans to become big spenders. It is the only way to have a big tent.

  33. superdestroyer says:

    In the future, every Republican candidate will be seen are seriously flawed. In the era of Snark-politics coupled with the left’s dominance of the media, there is no way that any Republican will be see as not seriously flawed.

    The only question is politics is whether 2012 is the last time that the media shows interest in the Republican Primary or will we all have to wait to 2016 to write the epitaph of conservative politics in the U.S.

    Image what will happen in 2016 when the winner of the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire will probably be seen as the president-elect a full year before the inaugural

  34. @Boyd: Tax policy perhaps….. where the least batshit insane tax proposal is still a 600 billion dollar a year revenue reduction overwhelmingly concentrated at the top of the income distribution… that is a direct continuation of Bush policy

  35. Eric Florack says:

    I think not. As I have been saying for years, now, bush was always at best a centrist. He was never a conservative. As such, I suggest that bush is in fact a symptom of what is going on with the GOP. Not the cause.

    Conservatives make up the majority of the voters in this country. Gallup suggested that in its most recent poll, and this one doesn’t vary greatly from the last few on the same subject.

    So the reason the field is so weak, is because of the GOP’s insistence on lunging for the center…which ends up being irrelevant as John McCain and Bob Dole both demonstrated. The GOP with its dedication on being angry thing to everybody, being in the center, ends up being nothing to anybody. Hence its repeated losses.

    Sadly, that lesson has yet to be learned.

  36. Eric Florack says:

    Just a side note; in fairness I’ve found a troublesome to comment from a smart phone as well. Indeed, I haven’t even been able to get into this site from my smart phone recently.