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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Where’s George?

The Delicate Dance of a Former President

For 20 of the last 31 years a Republican president has occupied the Oval Office. Two of those presidents – the first and second George Bush – served for a combined 12 years, yet in the current political environment they seem as distant from the partisan hubbub as, well, Republicans of an earlier day wished Herbert Hoover would have been in 1936. More on that in a moment.

George H.W. Bush – Bush 41 – has offered an “unofficial” endorsement, whatever that means, to Mitt Romney, but Bush 43 is virtually invisible in Republican politics or public life. While Romney and Newt Gingrich fight to inherit the mantle of Ronald Reagan, no candidate makes the trek to the Texas ranch to seek George W.’s advice or endorsement. It’s almost as though his presidency, at least for GOP candidates, has been erased from the blackboard of the current campaign. It will be interesting to see if Bush the Younger has any role at this summer’s GOP convention.

Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has refused to endorse a candidate in today’s Florida primary and that decision has been the subject of much tea leaf reading. By most accounts a few words from the third Bush would have been very helpful to any candidate, but beyond jabbing the candidates for their anti-immigration rhetoric, the next Bush in line has stayed above the fray.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes suggests that Jeb Bush may be playing his cards so close because he can foresee a role for himself as a compromise and unifying GOP candidate in the unlikely event the Republican nominating process becomes deadlocked. Or, Barnes says, Bush could be a unifying choice as vice president on a Romney or Gingrich ticket. I say don’t count on it.

With no Kennedy now in significant public office, the Bush family is the closest thing we have to a dynasty in American politics. Still the elder Bush, now 87, is clearly in declining health and George W. is so politically radioactive after two controversial terms that no current candidate wants to be close to him. Many Republicans long for a Jeb Bush candidacy, but he demurs. He recently provided a glimpse into his thinking when he told an interviewer that 2012, given his age and the state of the country, was probably his year, but for whatever reason he has taken a pass, which takes us back to W.

If many Democrats see Bush 43 as the modern day equivalent of the Great Depression scarred Herbert Hoover, he is certainly behaving much differently than the discredited Hoover did four years after his defeat at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt.

Perhaps the difference can be explained by the fact that Hoover still hungered for another term in the White House. George W. had his eight years. In any event, the two men – tremendously unpopular when they left the White House – played their post-presidential years very differently.

In February 1936, just as FDR’s re-election campaign was beginning to take shape, Hoover gave a Lincoln Day speech in Portland, Oregon. By many accounts the former president, who had lost in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932, saw himself as the best possible candidate for the Republicans in 1936. Hoover used the occasion of his Portland speech to rip into Roosevelt’s program and he sounded like a man eager for a rematch.

“The issue [facing the nation in 1936],” Hoover said, “is the attempt to fasten upon the American people some sort of a system of personal government for a government of laws; a system of centralization under a political bureaucracy; a system of debt; a system of inflation; a system which would stifle the freedom and liberty of men.  And it can be examined in the cold light of three years’ experience.”

Hoover was referring, of course, to the first three years of FDR’s term during which the Great Depression continued to create extremely high unemployment, a high rate of home and farm foreclosures and a general lack of confidence in the economy. At the same time, Roosevelt was assembling an unprecedented amount of personal power in the Executive Branch, or at least Republicans said he was.

In his Oregon speech 76 years ago, Hoover used some language that might have been ripped from today’s headlines. Critiquing FDR’s State of the Union speech, Hoover lambasted FDR’s references to “dishonest speculators” and “entrenched greed.” He said Roosevelt was issuing a call to “class war” and, of course, he criticized Roosevelt for deficit spending.

Despite his interest and availability, Hoover was never again considered a serious presidential contender after losing so badly in 1932. Tainted by the stock market crash of 1929 and what has widely be seen, then as now, as his less than effective response to the economic crisis of the early 1930’s, Hoover nevertheless continued to speak out on public issues. He was invited to the 1936 GOP convention and he gave the New Deal and FDR hell in a speech that featured language strikingly similar to what we hear from GOP candidates today.

Hoover lamented that the “New Deal is a definite attempt to replace the American system of freedom with some sort of European planned existence.” Sound familiar? Romney has repeated said that Barack Obama wants to create “a European style welfare state.”

“Billions have been spent to prime the economic pump,” Hoover said to the 1936 GOP convention.  “It did employ a horde of paid officials upon the pump handle.  We have seen the frantic attempts to find new taxes on the rich…Freedom to work for himself is changed into a slavery of work for the follies of government.”

Two things are worth noting about Hoover’s aggressive long ago critique of the man who beat him. The former president certainly didn’t help Republicans in 1936 and many Republicans simply wished the former president would have just pulled a George W. and disappeared.

Secondly there are really very few new attack lines in American politics. Republicans have long been accusing Democrats of “socialism” and Democrats have forever labeled the GOP the party of Wall Street.

In 1936, Roosevelt used tough language and a great deal of humor to carefully weave the Hoover legacy, if not the former president’s name, into his stump speeches. He was most effective with his mocking references to what the Republicans and their candidate Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon would do to his New Deal.

Obama has been regularly criticized for invoking Bush’s record and as of last fall he had stopped making references to “Bush’s failed economic policies” or “Bush style foreign policy.”

If history is any guide to what to expect in politics, and it often is with Hoover’s 1936 speeches being a good example, then expect the references to George W. to creep back into Democratic campaign rhetoric as we get closer to November. If Obama is as skillful as the Democratic president all Democrats love to invoke – Franklin Roosevelt – he’ll use a mixture of tough talk and dismissive humor to connect the eventual Republican nominee to the silent, but hardly forgotten George W. Bush.

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