Stu Rothenberg has a column on one of the key questions of the 2008 election. Projections of Democratic victories in 2008 rest on the assumption -- implicit or explicit -- that the GOP nominee will be badly damaged by the Bush legacy. Much of the Republican party's unpopularity and its weakness on key issues -- such as controlling spending -- lay with the perception that George Bush has not been effective on those issues.
When the GOP decides its nominee, that person will have no close association with the current president. He won't be the Vice President, or even a former cabinet official. Whoever the nominee is, he will differ from Bush on key policy matters. Thompson and Giuliani disagree with Bush on abortion and other social issues. Romney will contrast dramatically on management. McCain has differed with Bush on the war, taxes, campaign finance, and pork-barrel spending.
How much of Bush's unpopularity will transfer to the party's nominee? Rothenberg says:
Unfortunately, history isn’t much of a guide, since there is just a single case in the post-war era when the party of a retiring president did not nominate his vice president to succeed him. That happened in 1952, when Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson for president over Vice President Alben Barkley (Stevenson actually was outgoing President Harry Truman’s choice)...
But is it reasonable to believe that voters completely disregard past performance — a party’s past performance — when an unpopular president leaves office? Probably not.
After all, Democrats have plenty of tape of Bush making promises that were not kept and asserting truths that turned out not to be true. And they’ll be running against a party that has been defined for the past few years by its leader, the president of the United States. That means the Republican nominee for president will inevitably be the candidate of continuity rather than dramatic change, no matter how passionately he delivers a message of change.
It’s also true, however, that once the GOP has a presidential nominee, he will start to redefine the public’s image of the Republican Party. George W. Bush will seem less relevant, less important. But he will never disappear. That doesn’t doom the Republican nominee, but it puts him in a hole even before the race has begun.
Rothenberg is a very accomplished analyst, but I think he's flat out wrong here. While the Republican candidate for president will need to defend the party -- and thereby try to burnish parts of Bush's legacy -- he is going to have strong distinctions as well.
Plus, voters will consider the Republican nominee in comparison with the Democrat. And if that person is Hillary Clinton (as I have repeated at length), the Republican will be the candidate of change. Hillary has been in Washington for 14 years. She is taking credit for the achievements of her husband's presidency -- which makes her a de facto 8-year incumbent. Furthermore, the Republican will depict Hillary as the last link of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton legacy of polarization. This will link Hillary not just to the failings of her husband's administration, but also those of his predecessor and follower. Republicans will ask whether the American people want more of the same, or a clean break.
There's also the fact that Hillary is increasingly becoming the not-so-proud owner of a terrible Senate legacy. She is arguably the most influential Democrat in the 110th Congress -- one that is establishing a record for lack of meaningful achievement. If she is the nominee, she will have to answer for Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, as well.