In February 2010, a series of billboards began popping up around the nation. A grinning, waving George W. Bush appeared beside the phrase, “Miss Me Yet?” The answer was a resounding, Eh, sorta. Bush had bounced back somewhat from his abysmal final approval rating, but while Republicans were feeling rosier about the ex-president, Democrats were not.
It turns out that for some Democrats, the question was not mistaken but merely premature.
Pelosi is the most specific but not the first example of Democrats expressing surprising fondness for the 43rd president. His refusal to endorse Donald Trump, his decision to skip the Republican National Convention, and rumors that he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election softened feelings about him. Perhaps his alleged reaction to Trump’s inaugural address was the coup de grace: “That was some weird shit.”
But there’s more to it than that. Pelosi’s specific flavor of nostalgia for Bush is notable because it so perfectly mirrors the equally improbable way Republican legislators and operatives began talking about Bill Clinton roughly eight years ago.
Despite old disagreements, Republicans hadn’t just forgotten their antipathy for Clinton by 2010—they were actively yearning for his return, at least in comparison to Barack Obama. Republicans complained that against the chilly, aloof, progressive Obama, Clinton was an affable, socially engaged centrist. The New York Times rounded up some signs of this newfound nostalgia. Orrin Hatch said Clinton would “go down in history as a better president” than Obama (a backhanded compliment if there ever were one). But Sean Hannity took to calling him “good old Bill.” Paul Ryan waxed: “I enjoy Bill Clinton. The first two years of his term were one thing, but the rest of his presidency was tempered with moderation, and the nation benefited.” David Bossie, who made his name as a Clinton antagonist, told Benjy Sarlin that however liberal Clinton might have been, he wasn’t a wild-eyed socialist like Obama.
This was all the more remarkable given just how acrimonious relations between Clinton and the GOP had been. When Clinton left office in 2001, around two-thirds of the country approved of his performance, but just 32 percent of Republicans approved. That in itself was a remarkable bounceback, given that the previous few years had seen a series of investigations, a pair of shutdowns, and an impeachment, products of a toxically partisan environment in Washington.
The kicker is that everything Bossie thought was true of Clinton before he now believes is true of Obama. Clinton was once a radical leftist, infiltrating the government to impose a radical agenda of wealth confiscation. Today we realize that was silly! But now we're sure this is a good description of Obama.
Bush’s rehabilitation is a product of both difference and distance. On the one hand, time heals at least some wounds. As Chait wrote back in 2010, “One day, Obama will play the same role in the Republican imagination that Clinton does today.”
There hasn’t been a chance to prove that right yet, but given what’s happened to Clinton and Bush, it seems safe to believe he will. (Had Hillary Clinton won in November, we might already be hearing Republicans bemoaning the fact that in contrast to her, Obama was honest, diligent, acted in good faith, etc., etc.) On the other hand, Bush looks at least a little better to Democrats because Trump is manifestly different: more strident, less predictable, less tutored in fact, and plagued by unprecedented controversies.
What’s even stranger is that given the pattern at play here, even Trump might benefit from the same sort of recovery some day. In eight, or 12, or 16 years, when Senate Minority Leader Pete Buttigieg or Speaker Seth Moulton is complaining that unlike President Cruz, Trump was at least a pragmatist who was willing to negotiate, you can be surprised. But don’t be too surprised.