As the matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton takes shape, it has begun to dawn on some conservatives that the Republican Party faces a distinct handicap: The Democrats will have two popular ex-presidents to campaign for them, and the GOP will have none. Bill Clinton is the party’s most effective surrogate for wife Hillary, writes Byron York in the conservative Washington Examiner: “Republicans haven’t had the same luck. The only two-term GOP president in the last generation, George W. Bush, has stayed mostly out of politics in the seven years since he left the White House.” Meanwhile, writing for The Wall Street Journal opinion page, Richard Benedetto grapples with President Obama’s value as a surrogate. “When Mr. Obama ran for office in 2008, a central part of his campaign strategy was to heap blame on George W. Bush,” writes Benedetto. “How has Mr. Obama dodged similar treatment?”
How indeed? The answer, I’d suggest, is something along the lines of by governing competently rather than presiding over a flaming wreck of a presidency. But this answer presumes a level of introspection into the success of the last two Democratic presidents, and the conspicuous failure of the one wedged between them, that is absent from both columns, and from conservative thought in general.
York notes “the GOP’s ex-president situation is a mess,” a situation he casually describes as “luck.” The closest his column comes to exploring the source of this misfortune is to note the bad blood between Donald Trump and the Bush family, especially Trump’s statement that Bush peddled false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (“Jeb Bush stood haplessly by, unable to defend either himself or his brother.”) Of course, Jeb could not defend his brother because, while Trump’s indictment was exaggerated (the Bush administration was victimized by bad intelligence), it was not entirely false (the administration also manipulated the intelligence at its disposal).
Benedetto tries to solve the mystery as to why Americans loathed Bush while liking Obama. He does not consider the hypothesis that the comparative performance of the two administrations in domestic and foreign policy may account for this disparity. Instead, Benedetto fixates on the role of Obama’s media manipulation, especially his skillful use of flattering images:
He heads a savvy public-relations machine that markets him like a Hollywood celebrity, a role he obligingly and successfully plays. One of the machine’s key tactics is to place Mr. Obama in as many positive news and photo situations as possible. Ronald Reagan’s advisers were considered masters of putting their man in the best possible light, but they look like amateurs compared with the Obama operation—which has the added advantage of a particularly obliging news media.
If only Bush’s media handlers had thought to try that! Oh, wait:
The news media did in fact transmit the Bush administration’s images of the president swaggering on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and clearing brush on his ranch in a cowboy hat, and standing on the rubble of the building that was destroyed by terrorists after his administration neglected repeated, urgent warnings of a planned attack. Many of these images were fawned over at the time, even by the mainstream media. Chris Matthews slathered over Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” coup. The trouble is that it eventually became clear the mission was not accomplished at all.
Jimmy Carter’s failed presidency became the Republican Party’s favorite point of comparison for every Democratic candidate or plan well into the 1990s, and they even hauled out the ghost of Carter in 2008 to taint Obama. Carter was a pretty lousy president, though he also suffered from unfortunate macroeconomic timing. Beginning in the 1980s, Republican messaging relied heavily on the connection between the president’s agenda and the economy’s performance. This formula has worked out badly for the last quarter-century, as George H.W. Bush and then his son presided over recessions, and Clinton and then Obama presided over expansions. And yes, long-term trends like negative partisanship have created a situation where most people feel frustrated with politics because they believe their side is losing. Nonetheless, Obama is and has consistently been far, far more popular than any of the leading Republicans.
Even if we discount the role of economics completely, though, the difference in governing quality is stark. Democrats have a governing program and a cadre of policy advisers that is responsive to empirical reality and able to effectively respond to real-world problems. Republicans have none of these things, and the rise of Trump has shown that the problem has grown worse, not better. Republicans don’t have an “ex-president problem.” They have a failed party.