Three years after Bill Clinton left the White House in January 2001, the 2004 Democratic candidates were tripping over each other to connect themselves to the nation's 42nd president. I remember one September 2003 debate in which literally every Dem running for the party's nomination said they were the rightful heir to the Clinton legacy.
Al Sharpton, after a while, apparently couldn't take it anymore. "I know that within the next hour we'll say that Bill Clinton walked on water," he joked.
We're at a comparable point now with regards to George W. Bush -- three years after a two-term president left office, his party is looking to nominate a challenger to an incumbent. Dems in 2004 couldn't stop referencing Bill Clinton, but in 2012, Republicans prefer to pretend the Bush presidency simply never happened.
Emily Heil ran a report a few weeks ago, noting that after 16 major debates for the GOP presidential field, Bush's name had only come up "a pitiful 56 times." (By comparison, Reagan's name was uttered 221 times.)
Given that Americans still blame Bush, not Obama, for the current economy, it's not unreasonable to think Republicans should be pressed a little more on whether, and to what extent, they agree with the GOP leader who was in office just three years ago.
Fortunately, as NBC's Mark Murray noticed, this week's debate offered a change of pace.
So far during this Republican presidential primary season, discussion of George W. Bush and his policies has been almost non-existent.
But at last night's GOP debate, He Who Must Not Be Named -- Bush -- was named by the candidates or moderator nine times.
And his presence over the debate was even bigger: Almost every heated exchange invoked, one way or another, policies, endorsements, or legislation from the Bush era.
No Child Left Behind. That infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." TARP. The 2001 airline bailout. The 2002 steel bailout. Even the 2004 Specter-vs.-Toomey primary.
This was long overdue. We're still living with the consequences of Bush-era policies, so it's only fair that his would-be Republican successors would start exploring this record in more detail.
That said, the nature of this exploration wasn't exactly encouraging.
Bush and Bush-era GOP policies came up far more often in this week's debate, but in each instance, this was used as a cudgel to beat down other candidates for being insufficiently right-wing. As Mark Murray added:
With Mitt Romney highlighting and criticizing Rick Santorum's Senate record, perhaps it was inevitable that votes in the Bush era would receive a more thorough examination last night than in previous debates.
Still, all of last night's criticism of policies and endorsements from 2001 through 2008 -- some of which weren't all that controversial at the time -- reflects how much more conservative the Republican Party has become since the man who billed himself as the "compassionate conservative" sat in the Oval Office.
Quite right. We've reached the point in Republicans politics at which GOP candidates are considered too liberal if they sided with the Bush/Cheney administration on most key areas of domestic policy.
Indeed, as Jon Ward added, Rick Santorum felt the brunt of these criticisms because he was, by 2012 standards, too loyal to the conservative Republican president in office during his congressional career.
The message to the American electorate is therefore rather striking: "Vote Republican in 2012: We won't be moderate like that Bush guy was."