Romney faces George W. Bush dilemma

Mitt Romney is facing a dilemma in how to publicly tackle George W. Bush’s tenure.

Some of Bush’s relatives have recently endorsed Romney, and he will likely be asked about Bush’s legacy and policies on the campaign trail. 

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The former president remains unpopular with most voters, and polls indicate people still blame him for the ailing economy. But he is liked by large factions of the Republican Party, making it politically dangerous for Romney to criticize him directly.

Romney has rarely mentioned Bush in his 2012 bid for the presidency. During a Thursday press conference where he was endorsed by former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, Romney downplayed his connection to their son.

“I haven’t met with President George W. Bush,” Romney said when asked how often they talked. “We speak from time to time.”

The former president has kept a low profile since leaving office, and Democrats privately say that tying Romney to Bush won’t work as well as attacking Romney’s own record. But if Romney embraces Bush too closely — or runs too hard away from him — it could hurt his campaign.

A Republican strategist close to Romney’s campaign said the likely strategy would be to avoid discussing Bush’s two terms in office, even when asked directly about him.

“When questions are asked about Bush it’ll be a combination of being respectful of Bush but then pivoting to his own agenda and the contrasts with the current president,” said the strategist. “It’s not going to benefit Romney to get into a long, protracted discussion about the successes and failures of President George W. Bush’s presidency.”

The strategist predicted that Romney would not seek out Bush’s endorsement and would likely avoid choosing anyone with strong Bush connections to be his vice presidential running mate — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who recently endorsed Romney, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was Bush’s budget director.

But Romney deviated from the “avoid Bush” strategy last week when he brought up Bush and the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, commonly known as the Wall Street bailout.

“I keep hearing [President Obama] say that he’s responsible for keeping America from going into a Great Depression,” Romney said. “No, no, no. That was President George W. Bush and [then-Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson … President Bush and Hank Paulson said, ‘We’ve got to do something to show we’re not going to let the whole system go out of business.’ I think they were right. I know some people disagree with me, but I think they were right to do that.”

In his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney veered in the other direction, blasting both former President George H.W. Bush and ex-President Ronald Reagan in order to assert his centrist credentials.

“Look, I was an Independent during the time of Reagan-Bush,” Romney said in a debate with then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”

Polling shows that voters still blame Bush for the economy. In a recent CNN poll, 56 percent of respondents blamed Bush and the GOP for the country’s economic problems, while only 29 percent blamed Obama and the Democrats. Bush remains one of the most unpopular recent presidents; only Richard Nixon was rated worse in an early February Gallup poll of the last eight commanders in chief.

But Bush’s image has improved somewhat since he left office. His approval rating in a September CNN poll had risen to 42 percent, a jump from the 33 percent approval rating he had in CNN's February 2009 poll.

That included an 82 percent favorability rating from Republicans and 64 percent from conservatives. Some of his policies, including income tax rates, remain highly popular with the GOP base.

“[Romney is] walking a tightrope between the base and the Obama spin machine,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “He’s going to have to distinguish himself from Bush.”

A former official in the George W. Bush White House who requested anonymity said Romney would have to find some separation, but said he could do it in subtle ways.

“I’m not saying the ill feelings toward Bush from some people have gone away, but they have subsided. With distance, everything improves,” said the former Bush aide. “There’s no candidate who ever says, ‘Things used to be so great, I want to be just like the last guy.’ … You don’t have to do it in a way that is derogatory toward the president who came before you, but you have to paint a picture of how you’d govern going forward.”

Romney has attacked some of Bush’s policies, albeit indirectly. He has ripped former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) for federal spending increases, much of which occurred during Bush’s terms. He has also gone after Santorum for supporting the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which was touted by Bush.

Romney has also made clear he does not support comprehensive immigration reform, which was legislation that Bush nearly convinced Congress to pass.