The Bush Factor

President George W. Bush Thumbs Up Photo “How much of an impact will President Bush have on voters’ decisions next year?”

It’s an interesting question. Respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg takes a thorough review of the historical record and demonstrates, quite convincingly, that the experts haven’t the foggiest idea.

Ultimately, there have simply been too few elections that didn’t feature either an incumbent president or a sitting vice president. The subset of those where an unpopular president was in office as a whipping boy for the opposition party is tiny, indeed: The 1952 contest pitting Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower. That race obviously doesn’t shed much light since Eisenhower was a uniquely popular, transcendent figure.

One can’t leave a column at “I haven’t a clue,” so Rothenberg draws a tepid conclusion:

In midterms, many Americans vote retrospectively. That is, they base their decisions on past performance. In presidential elections, they tend to look forward, to evaluate the nominees on the basis of how they will perform in office.

But is it reasonable to believe that voters completely disregard past performance — a party’s past performance — when an unpopular president leaves office? Probably not.

After all, Democrats have plenty of tape of Bush making promises that were not kept and asserting truths that turned out not to be true. And they’ll be running against a party that has been defined for the past few years by its leader, the president of the United States. That means the Republican nominee for president will inevitably be the candidate of continuity rather than dramatic change, no matter how passionately he delivers a message of change.

It’s also true, however, that once the GOP has a presidential nominee, he will start to redefine the public’s image of the Republican Party. George W. Bush will seem less relevant, less important. But he will never disappear. That doesn’t doom the Republican nominee, but it puts him in a hole even before the race has begun.

That has the ring of truth to it. Certainly, a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will have an easier time of making the case that they represent a complete break from the Bush administration.

Those running against the current policies would seem to have the advantage, given Bush’s woeful approval ratings. Then again, it may be that the voters actually want the basic outlines of the Bush policy, simply executed more competently and with a more articulate spokesman. If the fictional Jack Bauer were running, after all, he’d probably win.

Further, a platform of “the country has gone to hell in a handcart” is necessarily negative and the candidate offering the more optimistic message almost always wins. The question for the Republicans is whether they have a candidate who can communicate that theme effectively.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    If the fictional Jack Bauer were running, after all, he’d probably win.

    I’ve heard the Rudy is thinking of buffing up.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    Truman and Johnson have some striking similarities to the current situation.

    Both declined to run (Bush didn’t decline, but won’t run for other reasons).

    All three were involved in war that had controversy as to how they started, questions being raised as to how necessary the war was and questions on the competency of how the war has been waged.

    For Truman and Johnson, the election went to the other party. But the election also went to the guy promising to fix the problems and win the war, not to the guy saying “run away”.

  3. cian says:

    Bush will remain extraordinarily relevant, if the dems have anything to say in the matter.

    The leading Republican contenders have already wrapped themselves in the neocon flag- McCain’s ‘Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran’ will be played on an endless loop; Romney putting legal advisors ahead of the constitution and his desire to ‘double GITMO’ likewise, and Giuliani with his torture boast and his rat’s nest of looney advisors is the gift that keeps on giving. Every dem spot will end on the words ‘Out Bushes Bush’.

  4. Tano says:

    “But the election also went to the guy promising to fix the problems and win the war”

    Not really. Nixon and Ike certainly promised to fix the problem, but neither claimed that they would win the war. Nixon promised “peace with honor”, which was widely understood to mean running away in slow motion while claiming not to.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    I admit that I wasn’t following presidential elections all that closely (especially since I wasn’t even a gleam in my Dad’s eye for Ike), but I think both gave a clear indication that they were going to win the war on some terms.

    In the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon stated that “new leadership will end the war” in Vietnam. He never used the phrase “secret plan”, which originated with a reporter looking for a lead to a story summarizing the Republican candidate’s (hazy) promise to end the war without losing.

    As for Ike, read his “I will go to Korea” speech.

    When the enemy struck, on that June day of 1950, what did America do? It did what it always has done in all its times of peril. It appealed to the heroism of its youth.
    This appeal was utterly right and utterly inescapable. It was inescapable not only because this was the only way to defend the idea of collective freedom against savage aggression. That appeal was inescapable because there was now in the plight into which we had stumbled no other way to save honor and self-respect.
    The answer to that appeal has been what any American knew it would be. It has been sheer valor-valor on all the Korean mountainsides that, each day, bear fresh scars of new graves.
    Now-in this anxious autumn-from these heroic men there comes back an answering appeal. It is no whine, no whimpering plea. It is a question that addresses itself to simple reason. It asks: Where do we go from here? When comes the end? Is there an end?
    These questions touch all of us. They demand truthful answers. Neither glib promises nor glib excuses will serve. They would be no better than the glib prophecies that brought us to this pass.
    To these questions there are two false answers-both equally false. The first would be any answer that dishonestly pledged an end to war in Korea by any imminent, exact date. Such a pledge would brand its speaker as a deceiver.
    The second and equally false answer declares that nothing can be done to speed a secure peace. It dares to tell us that we, the strongest nation in the history of freedom, can only wait-and wait-and wait. Such a statement brands its speaker as a defeatist.
    My answer-candid and complete-is this:
    The first task of a new Administration will be to review and re-examine every course of action open to us with one goal in view: To bring the Korean war to an early and honorable end. This is my pledge to the American people.

    As the next Administration goes to work for peace, we must be guided at every instant by that lesson I spoke of earlier. The vital lesson is this: To vacillate, to appease, to placate is only to invite war-vaster war-bloodier war. In the words of the late Senior [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, appeasement is not the road to peace; it is only surrender on the installment plan.
    I will always reject appeasement.

    For a democracy, a great election, such as this, signifies a most solemn trial. It is the time when-to the bewilderment of all tyrants-the people sit in judgment upon the leaders. It is the time when these leaders are summoned before the bar of public decision. There they must give evidence both to justify their actions and explain their intentions.
    In the great trial of this election, the judges-the people-must not be deceived into believing that the choice is between isolationism and internationalism. That is a debate of the dead past. The vast majority of Americans of both parties know that to keep their own nation free, they bear a majestic responsibility for freedom through all the world. As practical people, Americans also know the critical necessity of unimpaired access to raw materials on other continents for our own economic and military strength.
    Today the choice-the real choice-lies between policies that assume that responsibility awkwardly and fearfully-and policies that accept that responsibility with sure purpose and firm will. The choice is between foresight and blindness, between doing and apologizing, between planning and improvising.
    In rendering their verdict, the people must judge with courage and with wisdom. For-at this date-any faltering in America’s leadership is a capital offense against freedom.
    In this trial, my testimony, of a personal kind, is quite simple. A soldier all my life, I have enlisted in the greatest cause of my life-the cause of peace.
    I do not believe it a presumption for me to call the effort of all who have enlisted with me-a crusade.
    I use that word only to signify two facts. First: We are united and devoted to a just cause of the purest meaning to all humankind. Second: We know that-for all the might of our effort-victory can come only with the gift of God’s help.
    In this spirit-humble servants of a proud ideal-we do soberly say: This is a crusade.

    To say that Ike was not seeking to win the war in Korea on terms favorable to the US is to re-write history.

    In reading the speech, I see a bunch of lines that would make for good material in 2008. Contrast the democrat’s votes to go to war, then to run away with the improving conditions is likely to be a bit of a problem for the left winning in 2008.