At last week's GOP presidential debate, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer served up a juicy one: "What has been President Bush's biggest mistake since taking office?"
It was an open invitation to take a swipe at the president and, in effect, violate what Ronald Reagan popularized as the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican."
In their responses, the candidates' willingness to lob a criticism at the president seemed in reverse proportion to their position in the polls. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, still tops in national polls of GOP voters, avoided the question and declared that "Washington is a mess." But Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, mired at 2 percent, did not hesitate to go after Bush. "The president ran as a conservative and governed as a liberal," he said. "That is what has really been the basis, I think, of the distrust that has developed among the Republican base."
Conservative criticism of Bush is nothing new, but as the 2008 presidential race heats up – and it becomes increasingly clear that voters are looking for change – pressure is building on all the Republican candidates to distance themselves from a president seemingly stuck in the low 30s in overall job approval. The question is when and how it happens. For lower-tier candidates, who have nothing to lose, bashing Bush may feel like the only option.
For the top-tier candidates, going strongly negative against Bush during the primaries may feel risky at this point, as the president maintains a 70 percent job approval rating in the latest Gallup poll among fellow Republicans. But if the GOP nominee looks too closely aligned with Bush, it could kill his chances in the general election. So the challenge is how to start the distancing process without making what looks like a wholesale defection, Republican strategists say.
"Let's face it, whoever the Republican nominee is … he's going to wear the Iraq war around his neck like a millstone," says Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster not affiliated with a presidential candidate. "He's going to be looking for any way he can to put some light between himself and the president. But it's threading the needle. You don't want to depress Republican turnout."
How to handle Iraq war
On the No. 1 issue, Iraq, almost all the GOP candidates continue to back Bush's decision to go to war, while a majority of Americans call it a mistake. At this point these candidates probably cannot change their position without looking like a flip-flopper. The safer criticism, analysts say, is to go after the handling of the war. "The problem was the mismanagement of the conflict," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the last debate, after reiterating his support for the war's rationale.
It is Bush's controversial plan for immigration reform that has given Republican candidates a safe place to go to bash the president – especially after his speech in Georgia on May 29, in which he stated that those who want to kill the legislation "don't want to do what's right for America" and are trying to "frighten people." That set off conservative talk radio hosts and bloggers, energizing opposition to the plan.
Bush's Georgia speech and conservative backlash were "a seminal moment," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation. "That set things off and it probably won't go away, especially when there are other potentially divisive issues coming down the pipeline," such as reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education reform.
Mr. Franc adds that, with Bush's overall job approval among Republicans well down from where it once was, in the 90s, a sizable slice of the GOP electorate is now receptive to a negative message against the president. Criticizing him is not risky when the pool of disgruntled Republican voters is one-third to more than one-half of the potential primary electorate, depending on the issue, Franc says.
A wild card in Bush-bashing calculus
One wild card in the Bush-bashing calculations of presidential candidates may be Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House who is still considering jumping into the '08 race and has been an increasingly vocal critic of the Bush administration. Mr. Gingrich has a following; he polls in the high single digits in the GOP field among Republican voters, fifth among 12 candidates or quasi-candidates.
If Gingrich does decide to run, his open warfare with the White House would undoubtedly become a feature of the campaign and, if it proves effective, could spur other major candidates to follow his lead. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Gingrich called the Republican Party in "collapse," implying that Bush is to blame. And in a speech last Friday to the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich warned that if the Republicans run a "stand-pat" presidential candidate who is seen as "representing four more years," the party will lose.
Ever since Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidential election last month – succeeding a member of his own party, Jacques Chirac, while being a harsh critic of him – Gingrich has pointed to that victory as a model for the GOP in the US. "In France, voting for change meant voting for the party in office, but not the personality in office," Gingrich wrote recently.
Some observers say that it's too late for any of the major GOP candidates to run against Bush. "[Sarkozy] overtly ran away from Chirac long ago," says Mr. Fabrizio.