Bush administration alumni bet against Democrats' midterm strategy, message

Veterans of George W. Bush's White House are betting that President Obama’s “blame-Bush” strategy won’t resonate with voters.

Former members of the administration expressed confidence that a cornerstone of Democrats' midterm strategy — pointing fingers at the former Republican president for many of the country’s current problems — would fall flat come November.

"This reflects the fact that they need to find a bright, shiny object to distract from the failures of this administration and this Congress," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman and counselor to Bush.

Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary under Bush, said polls and focus groups — along with a gut sense — indicate voters’ frustration will be aimed at the present incumbent, not the last one.

"While people may blame President Bush for the financial crisis and recession, the most intensity among voters is [responding to] President Obama's and Democrats' response," Fratto said. "The amount of spending with no discernible economic return has voters infuriated, and they know that's Obama and Democrats, not President Bush."

Democrats remain wedded to the strategy, and are confident in it.

"[I]f they want to make this election about what Democrats are doing to move the country forward versus Republicans who want to take us back to the Bush era — we’re all good with that," said Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Bush has remained largely out of the spotlight since leaving the White House, giving a few paid speeches and working on his memoir, Decision Points, which will be published shortly after Election Day. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been a more prominent critic of the Obama administration.

Earlier this year, Obama tapped Bush and former President Bill Clinton to spearhead fundraising for earthquake relief in Haiti, arguably Bush’s highest-profile post-presidency project. The Republican was in Haiti on Tuesday to survey disaster-relief efforts.

Bush’s former aides said he’s likely to continue to keep a low profile during the election cycle, though Woodhouse raised questions Tuesday about why Bush wasn’t campaigning for Republicans.

"He will continue to do what he’s done and lead a very distinguished post-presidency," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary from 2001 to 2003.

Fleischer said the blame-Bush strategy already has failed in several races. New Jersey Democrats tried it against Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney under Bush, when Christie won the governorship last year, Fleischer argued.

"The 2009 elections proved that efforts to run against George Bush were doomed, even one year after he was gone," he said. "If anywhere where there could be a credible attack launched against a challenger, it was New Jersey."

Gillespie helped found Resurgent Republic, a conservative-oriented research group on messaging and strategy, after leaving the White House. The group's surveys, he said, show Democrats' messaging on Bush are falling flat with voters.

"The last Resurgent Republic survey was pretty clear on it," he said. "That message versus the Republican critique of Obamanomics — there's no doubt that the Republican message is resonating right now."

The current president appears to disagree, having fed supporters steak-and-potatoes attacks on Bush and Republicans during a series of fundraisers this week.

"The last thing we can afford to do at this critical juncture in our history is to go back to the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place," Obama said Monday at a DNC fundraiser.

Fratto said Democrats can't even define what "Bush policies" mean at this point.

"Whatever voters think of President Bush, they understand that President Obama is now in the driver’s seat, and they really don't like where he's taking them," he said.

Gillespie, meanwhile, said history would treat Bush more kindly than public opinion has. He said Bush would "absolutely" be seen more favorably as time wears on.


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