Blame Bush for Massachusetts

Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s stunning upset of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has provoked a fascinating round of election-year self-examination for Democrats.

Shortly after the Associated Press called the race, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen revealed the fruits of his introspection: Blame George W. Bush. “This year’s Midterms will be a choice between continuing the economic progress and independent leadership that House Democrats are delivering for their districts versus Republicans who are eager to turn back the clock to the same failed Bush-Cheney policies,” Van Hollen said.

President Obama echoed Van Hollen’s comments yesterday, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they’re frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”

Phew! Good to know. Glad it wasn’t the overreaching liberal agenda of the Democrats in Congress or the Obama White House.

Once I stopped laughing, I started to think maybe Van Hollen and Obama had a point. I actually came up with three reasons why it was George W. Bush’s fault that a Democratic attorney general in the nation’s most Democratic state lost her bid for a Senate seat held for 47 years by a revered Democrat, less than one year after the inauguration of a Democratic president.

The first dates back to 2004, when Democrats nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to challenge President Bush. Kerry privately proclaimed Bush an “idiot” and couldn’t imagine losing to him. A powerful coalition of liberal 527 groups, Hollywood filmmakers, national labor unions, and the producers of 60 Minutes (not to mention the Democratic Party) vowed to oust the president. When the Election Day exit polls started leaking out (also intent on helping to oust the president by tamping down Republican voter enthusiasm), Kerry campaign aides took to calling their candidate, “Mr. President.”

In the Massachusetts State Capitol, Democrats did more than pop their champagne corks prematurely that year. Standing on the 10-yard line, they staged a legislative end-zone dance, changing the rules for replacing the surely soon-to-be President Kerry. Under existing law, Gov. Mitt Romney would have named an interim Senator, who would have served until the 2006 midterms. But Democrats wouldn’t allow the Republican Romney any such chance. Instead, they passed a law requiring a special election within 145-160 days.

Despite the countless forces aligned against him, Bush won re-election. The new procedure for replacing Senators faded into memory, until Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away last August and Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick was unable to appoint his successor. Massachusetts held a special election within the required five months, and Sen.–elect Brown drove his pickup truck over the 60-vote majority Senate Democrats need to pass President Obama’s health care package.

That brings us to the second reason to blame Bush. In 2007, the newly empowered Democratic majority attempted to pass a lite version of Obamacare, with tax increases to pay for a vastly expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program. S-CHIP was highly popular. President Bush was not. As the media reminded us daily, he was a lame-duck president with low approval ratings and little sway on Capitol Hill. Yet Bush opposed the bill, strongly and publicly. He objected to the idea of expanding a government program for poor children to cover middle-class adults, and shift millions of Americans from private insurance plans to a public one. More broadly, he saw the S-CHIP gambit as the first move toward a government takeover of health care. When the children’s health bill reached his desk, he vetoed it—an act most pundits derided as near suicidal. But Bush rallied Congressional Republicans to stand their ground. Attempts to override the veto failed.

This year, Republicans in Congress encountered a much less politically appealing health bill. Having rebuffed an expansion of the popular S-CHIP program, it wasn’t so tough to reject the bloated, costly and heavy-handed measure proposed by Obama. Numerous Democrats from swing districts seem to feel the same way. Because Bush refused to cave into political pressure to surrender his principles, the Democrats aren’t able to point to the expansion of S-CHIP as precedent for broader government encroachment into America’s system of private medicine.

Bush’s adherence to principle in another area may account for the third strike against Coakley. For years, Bush was told that his policies in the war on terror constituted “torture;” degraded America’s moral stature in the world; exacerbated terrorism; and created a false “choice between our safety and our ideals.” (That last charge was leveled by President Obama in his graceless inaugural address a year ago.)

The new administration followed through by releasing sensitive memos intended to embarrass Bush and the CIA; threatening to prosecute of CIA interrogators; to move suspected terrorists out of Guantanamo Bay’s detention facilities and onto U.S. soil; and announcing plans to move the al-Qaida mastermind of 9/11 out of military detention at Guantanamo Bay and into the civilian court system for trial in New York City. Then, when an al-Qaida operative nearly blew up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, Democrats seemed surprised to learn that Americans were leery of their policies on terrorism.

To be fair, these are not the factors Van Hollen and Obama had in mind. They were talking about the struggling economy, which the Democrats have concluded they must try to blame on President Bush in perpetuity. When Bush left office early last year, the country was facing serious economic challenges, but the worst of the financial crisis had passed. There’s no denying the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Plan (TARP) was controversial, but there is also no denying that the credit markets thawed and major financial institutions stabilized in its wake. Indeed, large amounts of TARP money have been repaid (and not all of it was dispersed in the first place), but voters are upset that instead of using the repayments to pay down debt, Democrats are seeking to divert the funds to more “stimulus” spending.

Former President Bush has declined to make such arguments, keeping a vow not to publicly criticize his successor. His one major public appearance since leaving office came last Saturday in the Rose Garden, where he praised President Obama’s “swift and robust” response to the Haiti earthquake and accepted the president’s request to raise private funds for its victims. The next day, Obama went to Boston to campaign for Coakley. In his speech, he bashed not only Brown, but his gracious predecessor.

A full year into the Obama presidency, the incessant invocation of “the last eight years” has worn thin not only on former Bush aides like me, but to the public. Americans want a president who takes responsibility and looks to the future, not someone incessantly looking back and trying to blame someone for problems. Blaming Bush may have helped Obama win the 2008 election, but by this November, still blaming Bush may actually contribute to what are likely to be massive Democrat losses in the House and Senate.

Ed Gillespie served as counselor to President George W. Bush in the last 18 months of his presidency.

  • Pingback: January 25, 2010: Obama, Democrats Respond to Republican Scott Brown’s Senate win in Massachusetts « HISTORY MUSINGS… Bonnie K. Goodman

  • ellene

    Where is Ed Gillespie when we need him at the RNC? Love the guy. Currently, the RNC has someone who constantly gets rolled.

  • seamusnh

    Nice article. Watch the elections in NH this Fall. Gregg (R) is not going for re-election so, his seat is up for grabs. Hodes (D) and Shea-Porter (D) are vulnerable. Here in NH we watch with interest what is going on in our neighbor to the south. MA is a basketcase and it is due to the overwhelming majorities the Democrats have in the state house and state senate. Add Deval Patrick to the mix and it was a recipe for disaster. We get the Boston stations on cable (there is only one local station in NH) and saw all the negative ads the Democrats tried with Scott Brown. I have never seen that much advertising on TV; not even in a presidential primary. NH may be back in the conservative camp come November…

  • johniii

    One of the lamest excuses I have ever heard. Scott Brown was elected because nobody wants that pile of crap called ObamaCare.

  • jchenn

    While the democrats are busy laying blame on Bush, why not throw in things like ingrown toenails, mildew and mosquitoes. Enough with the excuses already. Obama had $700B in TARP dollars, $770B in stimulus. Then there was about $800B in his budget to keep company with the homeowner bailout worth about $250B. And let’s not forget the supermajority in Congress and a doting press. Please oh please don’t give us some SOP story about how bad things were. If you can’t get job growth with that kind of cash you’re doing something seriously wrong.

  • banjo

    All his may be true, but people stopped listening to Dubya somewhere in his fifth or sixth year in office. The biggest-spending president until Obama came along, Dubya’s trouble with speaking an understandable sentence meant he couldn’t make much of an argument about anything. He wasn’t stupid, but he sure could play it on TV.

    • rmekrnl

      Uh, small “inconvenient truth” for you, banjo. Presidents don’t spend taxpayer money. They don’t have that authority under the U.S. Constitution. Obama acts like he’s never heard of it, but you’ve at least heard of that document, I hope?

      Presidents ask Congress to authorize, allocate and spend taxpayer money. Presidents can’t spend one thin dime without the help and authorization of Congress. That’s how Obama, in collusion with his henchmen and handmaidens in a Democrat-controlled Congress, has added more debt to our country in less than one year than ALL of his presidential predecessors COMBINED.

      Another “inconvenient truth” for you: Since taking control of Congress in 2006, the Democrats have consistently authorized MORE to be spent each year than Bush even asked them for, while at the same time refusing to reign in and actually defending Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the origin of the financial meltdown which threw the country into a recession in the first place, despite Bush asking Congress at least 17 times since 2001 (yes, the Republican-controlled Congress prior to 2006 didn’t listen either) to do so.

      So, tell me again, please, how Bush was the biggest spending president until Obama came along? Or did you just speak without thinking? And is that something you do a lot?

      So far as Bush not being stupid but playing it well on TV, Obama is the opposite — he plays being brilliant when properly teleprompted on TV but his first year of not achieving much of anything that’s worked, even WITH majorities in both chambers of Congress, clearly shows he’s not. The American people are finally beginning to get past the soaring rhetoric and discovering there’s no substance there, something some of us have known for some time.