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.