I think it’s clear that the Democrats expected George W. Bush to be the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to electoral politics. Frankly, I expected this as well, albeit to a lesser degree than the Dems did.
But that’s not how things are turning out. It’s not just that Democratic efforts to make the 2010 election a referendum on the Bush presidency failed (predictably enough). There is also plenty of evidence that Bush is no longer very unpopular, if indeed he is unpopular at all.
Today’s news brings us additional evidence on this score. First, a Gallup poll rates him as the second most admired American. He’s well behind Barack Obama but slightly ahead of Bill Clinton.
Second, sales of Bush’s new book, Decision Points, have reached two million. The book was released early last month. As Peter Wehner notes, Bill Clinton’s biography, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. Bush’s publisher, Crown, said it could not think of any other non-fiction book that sold even one million copies this year.
It’s possible that Bush rates second on the most admired list and sold so many books based solely on the view of his hard-core supporters. But other evidence shows that his comeback is broader than that. For example, Bush has run neck-and-neck with President Obama in hypothetical presidential matchups this year.
How do we account for Bush’s comeback? I don’t think he’s made much new headway among arch-conservatives. 2010 saw the right turn away even more decisively than before from Bush’s “compassionate” or “big government” conservatism. Nor is there much reason to believe that the left has come to view Bush in a new light.
More likely, Bush’s revival is driven by those closer to the center. This seems fitting, since Bush was far more of a centrist than many of his critics assumed. Both of the wars he initiated had bipartisan, and strong popular, support when he initiated them. And he reached across the aisle on issues like No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit. He even tried at the beginning of his presidency to compromise with Democrats on judicial nominees.
But why has the center revised its views of Bush? I suspect it’s because of the contrast between him and his successor, the alleged post-partisan. Obama’s first two years were far more ideologically single-minded than was the Bush presidency.
Moreover, and at least as importantly, Obama’s periodic belligerence and petulance must have reminded many of how gracefully Bush carried himself. Though significantly less popular as president than Obama, and more widely reviled, Bush never seemed to whine and rarely attempted to blame others. Unlike Obama, he was willing to praise his predecessor. And he steadfastly declines to criticize his successor.
Finally, the issue that contributed the most to Bush’s loss of popularity among those in the center — the Iraq war — looks quite different today than it did when centrists turned against him over it. The war remains controversial, of course, but I doubt that it is widely viewed as a disaster these days.
The Bush presidency continues to be important. His tax policy has been extended; the war he initiated in Afghanistan is being waged more vigorously than when Bush left office; Gitmo remains in operation, and so forth. But the ongoing importance of his presidency is substantive — key Bush policies remain compelling enough to retain — not political, as the Democrats had hoped.
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