By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 09/10/12 09:01 PM EDT
President Obama is using the still unpopular former President George W. Bush to gain an edge on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Obama rarely points direct blame on Bush for the sluggish U.S. economy, but implicit in his “forward” campaign message and his relentless attacks on Romney is that a vote for the Republican ticket would bring the country back to the policies of the Bush administration.
So far, Romney has had a difficult time distinguishing his brand of Republicanism from Bush's, a problem that helped sink Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign against Obama in 2008.
At least one former Bush administration official argues Romney must use the few remaining months of the campaign to draw a stronger distinction — including by criticizing Bush’s policies, if necessary.
“This election is not about President Bush, it's only about Gov. Romney and his aspirations,” said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to Bush. “That’s what any campaign for president is always about. Gov. Romney should do whatever they think is best for him to get elected.
“All of us in the Bush administration have thick skin and we can defend ourselves,” he added. “We're not looking for anyone to defend us.”
Republicans strategists and advisers say Romney must follow Bill Clinton’s path from 1992, the last time an incumbent president was defeated.
Clinton knew he could not be perceived as another Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, three previous Democratic presidential candidates who all had been perceived as passive or weak. So he carved out relatively conservative positions on issues like the death penalty while highlighting scrappy parts of his background, including his birth to a single mother and battles with an alcoholic stepfather.
Similarly, Romney cannot afford to have voters perceive his campaign as offering warmed-over versions of Bush-era policies.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Romney can’t unburden himself from Bush’s legacy without addressing it.
“They're trying to distance themselves from Bush by never mentioning him,” Jillson said. “They have to be able to tell people who are concerned about the last few years why their version of the Republican agenda will help jump start the economy and they haven't done that yet.”
Obama has seized on the lingering unpopularity of Bush by seeking to tie Romney to the previous president.
In speech after speech, he refers to Bush without mentioning him by name, using some version of “we're moving forward, not backward” while questioning why the country would want to go back to the policies that “got us into this mess.”
In statements, Obama campaign spokesmen argue vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) rubber-stamped Bush’s policies, which they say exploded the deficit and crashed the economy. Ryan and Romney would repeat those mistakes, they say.
“Romney subscribes to the flawed theory that tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, coupled with greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy,” said Adam Fetcher, a spokesman with the Obama campaign.
While Fratto agrees that the "Forward" slogan “transparently” links Bush to Romney, he said it lacked substance and heft — and therefore could be exploited by a smart Republican defense.
“They're saying ‘Go forward’ without any policies outlined,” he said. “The only thing we know about a second Obama administration is that they want to defend the achievements of the first Obama administration and they want to tax people.”
Romney seemed to acknowledge the slogan's potency while looking to undermine it during a campaign stop Monday in Mansfield, Ohio.
“I think forewarned is a better term, not forward,” Romney said.
Republican strategists say there are limitations to the Obama strategy.
Voters are tiring over Obama blaming the economy on his predecessors; recent polls have shown that for the first time, more blame Obama for the lagging economy than Bush.
“I don't hear them saying the name anymore,” noted Republican adviser Ron Bonjean.
During the same speech in Ohio on Monday, Romney was interrupted by a supporter who yelled out, "It's not Bush's fault!"
“Yeah!” Romney responded, to a loud cheer from the crowd.
The Romney campaign insists it is unconcerned about Obama’s attempts to link Romney to Bush, and feels it can effectively and substantively attack the Democratic economic record in October's debates.
“The Obama campaign’s efforts to connect Mitt with W’s policies are little more than a smokescreen to cover up the fact that Obama’s policies of overspending with little accountability have put our country is a worse position than when he took office,” said a Romney aide.
And Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak says that to launch a Clinton-esque effort to reform the Republican Party brand would be out of character for Romney.
“Clinton really relished the opportunity to change how the Democratic Party was perceived, he ran for president wanting to revolutionize the party and it was very natural for him to do that,” Mackowiak said. “Romney is not running to revolutionize the Republican Party, he's running to fix the economy.
“I don't think he's even going to be an aggressive party leader if he's president, I think he's going to be so focused on the job, that's going to be almost secondary for him,” Mackowiak continued.
But even if Romney can't launch a total rebranding of the Republican Party, he will still need to escape the specter of the Bush administration — and find an economic message that resonates better with voters.
“Too much of the focus has been on Medicare because of the pick of Paul Ryan, Medicare and the federal budget,” said one Republican adviser. “They need to amp up what they would actually do to solve the financial crisis.”