Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was, for the most part, a polite affair. Candidates frequently spoke of how much they agreed with their opponents. They acknowledged that, despite differences on issues as fundamental as abortion rights, they would back one another against any Democrat in November, 2OO8. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the wind out of his mild criticisms of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain when he kept referring to his fellow front runners as “my friend.”
But the candidates did not go entirely soft when it came to taking partisan potshots.
There was one Republican who suffered a trashing: George W. Bush.
When the candidates were asked how they would “use” the outgoing president in their administrations, the responses were breathtaking.
Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, an outspoken foe of the Bush administration’s immigration policies, told the story of a call he got from White House political czar Karl Rove during a dust-up on the issue several years ago. Tancredo said an angry Rove told him to “never darken the door of the White House.”
“I’ve been so disappointed in the president in so many ways,” said Trancredo, who complained about the administration’s immigration, education and prescription-drug policies before asserting that, “As president, I would have to tell George Bush exactly the same thing that Karl Rove told me”
That’s not a policy difference. That’s hate.
But even the Republicans who supposedly like Bush played the president’s failures for laughs.
What may have been the best line of the night came when first-term Bush Cabinet member Tommy Thompson referenced his former boss’s lack of diplomatic skills in his reply to the what-do-you-do-with-Bush question.
“I would certainly not send him to the United Nations,” said Thompson.
Speaking of the Bush administration, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services told the Republican-leaning crowd at the debate in the first primary state of New Hampshire: “We went to Washington to change Washington. Washington changed us.”
At least Thompson said “we.”
The other candidates were less generous.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Bush “bungled Katrina,” suggesting that not just the president but the Republican Party “lost credibility” when White House failed to respond quickly or effectively when a deadly hurricane struck New Orleans in 2005.
Running down a long list of Bush administration failures, Huckabee said of the mid-term election thumping the party took in 2006: “We didn’t do what we were hired to do and the people fired us. The Republican Party as a whole deserved to get beat.”
McCain agreed. “We let spending get out of control,” he said of the Bush years. “We presided over the largest increase in the size of government since [Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s] Great Society. And our constituents and our Republican [backers] became dispirited and disenchanted.”
What of Bush’s signature issue: the Iraq invasion and occupation?
Both McCain and Romney said the commander-in-chief blew it early on.
“I think we were under-prepared and under-planned for what came after we knocked down Saddam Hussein,” explained Romney.
McCain, who made the amazing admission that he voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq without reading the National Intelligence Estimate of risks associated with the invasion, said, “This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time.”
The crowd at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College, which was made up of Republicans and independents who said they expected to vote Republican in next January’s presidential primary, repeatedly applauded the banging on Bush.
Even Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a favorite target of the other candidates at the last GOP debate, received a remarkably warm response when he scored the current administration for adopting a policy of preemptive war making.
“We in the past have always declared war in the defense of our liberties or go to aid of somebody,” he said. “But now we have accepted the principle of preemptive war — we have rejected the just war theory of Christianity,” the anti-war congressman said of a president who regularly references his Christianity.
“We have to come to our senses about this issue of war and preemption and go back to traditions and our constitution and defend our liberties and defend our rights.”
The audience burst into applause for the Republican who was bashing Bush before Bush bashing was cool.
John Nichols’ new book is