The Bush Question

Romney needs a far better answer to the Bush question.

Last night I was struck by the following question:

QUESTION: Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration.

Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election.  What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and howdo you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?

I have long thought that this is the the question that a Republican nominee was going to have to answer going into this campaign cycle.  Obama was always going to be a vulnerable incumbent because of the state of the economy, however he was also always going to have the ability to correctly note that he inherited the worst economic downtown in almost a century from his predecessor.   I know that Romney supporters will note, correctly, that Bush is not running.  They can also rightly note that the president has to take responsibility for the the last four years.  However, that does not erase the Bush administration and its clear shortcomings which includes two wars and Medicare expansion funded by debt and tax cuts that did not produce economic growth.  These are not minor issues that can be ignored, especially since Romney’s basic plan is that tax cuts will create growth and that his views of foreign policy seem grounded in the notion that we must be strong and resolute (and apologize for nothing, because he is certain of the rightness of American actions and strength).

If one is going to be fair, one has to admit that tax cuts as the cornerstone of domestic policy and resolute strength as the basis of foreign policy sounds an awful lot like George W. Bush.

As such, Romney needs an answer to the question of how he isn’t Bush, and it should have been something that he had been discussing for months (instead of just pretending, for the most part, that the Bush administration did not exist).  It is always telling when a presidential campaign harkens back not to their most recent copartisan in the White House, but rather to some icon from the past.  Bill Clinton did not run on being like Jimmy Carter, but rather sought to invoke Jack Kennedy.  Likewise Mitt seeks to “stay out the Bushes”* and wants to be seen as the new Reagan.

So, when given the above-quoted question, how did Romney respond?

First, he stalled, because instead of answering a central question he wanted to use part of his time to follow-up on contraception:

ROMNEY: Thank you. And I appreciate that question.

I just want to make sure that, I think I was supposed to get that
last answer, but I want to point out that that I don’t believe…

OBAMA: I don’t think so, Candy.

ROMNEY: … I don’t believe…

OBAMA: I want to make sure our timekeepers are working here.

ROMNEY: The time – the time…

CROWLEY: OK. The timekeepers are all working. And let me tell
you that the last part, it’s for the two of you to talk to one
another, and it isn’t quite as (inaudible) you think.

But go ahead and use this two minutes any way you’d like to, the
question is on the floor.

ROMNEY: I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in
Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or
not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they
could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should
have access to contraceptives. And – and the – and the president’s
statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.

OBAMA: Governor…

He then, after wasting time arguing over the rules and then giving a fairly boilerplate answer on contraception, returned to the Bush question.  I will quote it in full below, but I would note that he really didn’t have much of an answer to the actual question, but rather took the opportunity to recount his five point plan.  Now, I fully recognize that it is the norm for the candidates to answer the question they want to answer rather than the question asked.  However, I would maintain that this was a question for which there should have been a better answer.  For the more part, Romney simply called the Bush administration “different times” and that the main differences include “crack[ing] down on China” (which strikes me as empty rhetoric) and focusing on small business rather than large ones.  He also noted that he would have a balanced budget, but that is a flight of fancy that should be ignored.

Here’s the response in full:

ROMNEY: Let me come back and – and answer your question.

President Bush and I are – are different people and these are
different times and that’s why my five point plan is so different than
what he would have done.

I mean for instance, we can now, by virtue of new technology
actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to
go to the – the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else. That wasn’t
true in his time, that’s why my policy starts with a very robust
policy to get all that energy in North America – become energy
secure.

Number two, trade – I’ll crack down on China, President Bush
didn’t. I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America.
It’s been growing about 12 percent per year over a long period of
time. I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more
trade.

Number three, I’m going to get us to a balanced budget.
President Bush didn’t. President Obama was right, he said that that
was outrageous to have deficits as high as half a trillion dollars
under the Bush years. He was right, but then he put in place deficits
twice that size for every one of his four years. And his forecast for
the next four years is more deficits, almost that large. So that’s
the next area I’m different than President Bush.

And then let’s take the last one, championing small business.
Our party has been focused too long. I came through small business.
I understand how hard it is to start a small business. That’s why
everything I’ll do is designed to help small businesses grow and add
jobs. I want to keep their taxes down on small business. I want
regulators to see their job as encouraging small enterprise, not
crushing it.

And the thing I find the most troubling about Obama Care, well
it’s a long list, but one of the things I find most troubling is that
when you go out and talk to small businesses and ask them what they
think about it, they tell you it keeps them from hiring more people.

My priority is jobs. I know how to make that happen. And
President Bush has a very different path for a very different time.
My path is designed in getting small businesses to grow and hire
people.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Governor.

This hardly strikes me as an answer that does anything for Romney.  Indeed, this list is actually one that Bush could have given in 2000 (and 2004, for that matter) during his campaign. In terms of actual policy, I can’t say as I see any significant difference between the two men.

I would say that I am stunned that Romney is unable to adequately answer this question, but the truth is that I am not sure that the GOP has come to terms with what a disaster the Bush administration was.

*Political Geek Points for whomever it is that can identify the reference.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    The economists I follow on twitter were all “of course he wouldn’t” on “crack down on China.”

    They say that because we are intertwined economically and there is just no way we can crack down without hurting ourselves at the same time.

    California’s economy will rebound even more slowly than previously anticipated due to the economic slump in China, the recession in Europe and a sluggish upswing in the United States, researchers with the closely watched UCLA Anderson Forecast said Thursday.

  2. mistermix says:

    You’re right – this exchange embodies Romney’s stylistic and substantive failure.

    On style, he did that kind of defensive “must correct” thing far too often. He’d do it long after Obama made the criticism, and his defenses were generally weak, so all those comments served to do was to remind the viewer of the criticism, not address it.

    On substance, you’re right that this is a key campaign issue and he should have had a well-rehearsed answer that picked a few highlights and presented them cogently.

  3. It’s actually a question I’d like to see Obama answer to. How exactly is Obama different than Bush?

  4. @john personna: Indeed. The whole China bit is nothing but the emptiest of rhetoric.

  5. Geek, Esq. says:

    This should have been an easy one to answer in one sentence:

    With due respect to President Bush, whose leadership in time of war I deeply appreciate, I view myself as more of a Ronald Reagan type of Republican.”

    He really didn’t need to say much more than that. Instead, word salad.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I know that Romney supporters …. They can also rightly note that the president has to take responsibility for the the last four years.

    A quibble: Really? Really??? Sole responsibility???? If I was President Obama I would take responsibility only for not declaring Marshall law when it became obvious that the only thing the GOP cared about was tanking this country in order to defeat him in 2012.

    But then, I suppose it would be unfair of him to use Mitch McConnell’s words against Mitt Romney.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    The most important facet of this is that Republicans have failed to learn any lessons from the failure of the Bush years. And that, in and of itself, should warrant disqualification.

  8. Facebones says:

    My favorite response of the whole debate was Obama’s follow up. How is Romney different than Bush? “George Bush never tried to voucherize Medicare.”

  9. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That’s easy. He isn’t starting major wars. We can faulting him for winding them down too slowly, but you’ve already accepted his major change in foreign policy when you do that.

  10. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Counter-productive too. Not in the national interest.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    How exactly is Obama different than Bush?

    Ummm… I’ll hazard a guess: He hasn’t engaged in unnecessary invasions of Muslim countries?

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @ Facebones…
    Best answer of the night???
    Hands down:

    “…Of course it adds up…”

    Because I’m Mitt Romney, dammit.

  13. SKI says:

    @Facebones: Except GWB did campaign on doing exactly that (albeit hidden behind “adopting the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) program”).

  14. @OzarkHillbilly: In fairness, I did not use the word “sole” and did not mean to imply it.

    I simply mean that as president he was to take responsibility for his presidency. This strikes me as noncontroversial.

    Of course, in noting that I am also indicating that Bush has responsibility for his 8 years, and so forth.

  15. @john personna: Agreed.

  16. Howie S says:

    “Stay out the Bushes” Harkens back to 2000 and Jesse Jackson

  17. @Howie S: And we have a winner!

    Your No Prize is in the mail. 😉

  18. SKI says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Easy:
    Focus on middle class, not wealthy.
    Reduced spending
    Fiscally responsible budgeting without hiding the cost of wars in supplementals
    Increased competency in dealing with natural disasters
    Focus on civil rights (women, LGBT, etc.) for everyone.
    etc., etc., etc.

  19. JKB says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Ummm… I’ll hazard a guess: He hasn’t engaged in unnecessary invasions of Muslim countries?

    No but he’ll bomb a country for not better reason than an oil contract dispute with France and Britain. So I guess not sending ground troops gives Obama a pass on Libya.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Facebones:

    “George Bush never tried to voucherize Medicare.”

    That had to hurt.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    I don’t think I can find the link, but someone dug up essentially the same five or six point plan from W. Bush. Also from McCain. So it’s hard for Romney to distance himself from Bush without lying. Oh well.

    It’s surprising that Romney wasn’t prepared for the Bush question. It’s also surprising he was taken aback by Obama’s response that he had called Benghazi a terror attack the following morning. There’s just enough ambiguity in Obama’s statement to allow the right wing Wurlitzer to claim he meant something different. Romney apparently believed what he was hearing within conservative circles and as a result walked right into it. Paul Krugman nailed this a few weeks ago with a Nineteen Eighty Four metaphor. You can lie to the proles, you can lie to the outer party, but once the inner party start believing the lies, you are in deep trouble.
    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/when-the-inner-party-believes-the-prolefeed/

  22. stonetools says:

    Mitt Romney doesn’t have a good answer because his policies are really Bush on steroids.
    MOAR budget busting tax cuts
    MOAR aggressive foreign policy
    MOAR defense spending
    MOAR confrontation with countries whose name starts with I

    As Obama points out, his social policy would be more conservative than Bush’s.

    One of things that Obama didn’t get to is Romney pledged to abolish Dodd- Frank, so we could look forward to more of the same financial shenanigans that set off the 2008 crash.
    The plain fact is that Romney does not have and will never have a good answer to the question, which the Democrats should take note of and pound on going forward.

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB:

    No but he’ll bomb a country for not better reason than an oil contract dispute with France and Britain.

    Riiigghhhttttt. Got it. Thanx for playing, come back again some time.

  24. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    No but he’ll bomb a country for not better reason than an oil contract dispute with France and Britain. So I guess not sending ground troops gives Obama a pass on Libya.

    Clinton and Reagan bombed the occasional country. Gunboat diplomacy is an even older term for shelling foreigners. If you are really a dove (are you?) you won’t like it, but it is hardly “a Bush thing.”

  25. mantis says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    How exactly is Obama different than Bush?

    Are you asking because you would like to hear the president’s answer, or because you think there are no differences?

  26. cian says:

    I may be wrong in this, but didn’t Obama start his response by saying something like ‘Romney may be different from Bush on the economy, but on social issues…etc’. Seemed a strange admission, particularly as Obama (correctly in my opinion) has spent the last year accusing Romney and the Republicans of wanting to return the country to the failed policies of the past.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I simply mean that as president he was to take responsibility for his presidency. This strikes me as noncontroversial.

    Steven, it is noncontroversial. But that is not what you said, I requote:

    They can also rightly note that the president has to take responsibility for the the last four years.

    You did not limit the criticism to his Presidency. Really, after 2010, what would you have had him do?

    And as far as Bush is concerned, not even I lay sole responsibility for everything that happened during his presidency on him. The crash of ’08?? The repeal of Glass-Steagall (Clinton). 9/11? Bush probably could have done more to prevent it, but I doubt it would have made a difference. That attack was just too “out of the box”. I do lay the lion’s share of the blame for Iraq on Bush and Co., but that does not mean a whole bunch of gutless Democrats didn’t go along with it and gave Bush the cover of bi-partisanship.

    And yes, this may seem to be silly games of semantics. And I would agree with you… But then the GOP wants to act like everything that has happened during the last 4 years is directly attributable to the Obama Admin. I suppose there is a certain kernel of truth to that. After all, if we hadn’t elected that black man to the White House, they wouldn’t have felt the need to play Russian Roulette with the debt limit.

  28. @OzarkHillbilly: Ok, “the last four years” is, technically, inaccurate. I simply meant, the four years of his presidency as it pertains to his presidency.

    He doesn’t hit four years until January.

    Also: it seems rather obvious that I am noting that he is not responsible for what he inherited.

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He doesn’t hit four years until January.

    I think we are arguing past each other Steven. Here is the crux of what I am trying to say:

    After all, if we hadn’t elected that black man to the White House, they wouldn’t have felt the need to play Russian Roulette with the debt limit.

    In other words, they share responsibility for the last 4 years (actually 3 yrs, 9 mos. – 3 days) as well. The man has not operated in a vacuum.

  30. @OzarkHillbilly:

    In other words, they share responsibility for the last 4 years (actually 3 yrs, 9 mos. – 3 days) as well. The man has not operated in a vacuum.

    Well, of course.

    This is, to me, always true. No president must take sole and total responsibility (despite the way the rhetoric runs).

    I could have been clearer on that point.

  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is, to me, always true…. (despite the way the rhetoric runs).

    I know, which is why it was just a “quibble.” It is the rhetoric the GOP is using now, it was the rhetoric the Dems used in ’06.

  32. @mantis:

    I think Obama’s differences from Bush are almost entirely rhetorical, with very little difference in terms of practical effects.

  33. Barry says:

    Steven: “I would say that I am stunned that Romney is unable to adequately answer this question, but the truth is that I am not sure that the GOP has come to terms with what a disaster the Bush administration was.”

    It was a great time for them, and an incredible looting spree – something which Romney probably literally got off on.

    Their goal is to do it all over again.

  34. swbarnes2 says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I think Obama’s differences from Bush are almost entirely rhetorical, with very little difference in terms of practical effects.

    That’s an odd thing to say. Bush did not, and would never have passed Lily Ledbetter. Bush did not and would never have passed ObamaCare. How can ObamaCare not have practical effects?

  35. David M says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I think Obama’s differences from Bush are almost entirely rhetorical, with very little difference in terms of practical effects.

    And you think Obama would have pushed for tax cuts similar to the ones Bush passed? Invaded Iraq for no reason and ignored Afghanistan? Tried to privatize social security? Supported the worse (GOP) version of Medicare Part D?

  36. An Interested Party says:

    I think Obama’s differences from Bush are almost entirely rhetorical, with very little difference in terms of practical effects.

    With all due respect, it is hardly surprising that a libertarian would think this way…