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That Liberal, George W. Bush

Today's news brought this tidbit from Minnesota:

Bill Clinton contends that the Republican Party has shifted so far to the right this election cycle that George W. Bush would be considered a liberal by 2010's standard.

"A lot of their candidates today, they make him look like a liberal," the former president said of his conservative successor during a Democratic fundraiser in Minnesota, the Associated Press reported.

Now I'm sure many people reading this quote would chalk it up to partisan hyperbole. But it's actually a pretty acute observation.

Throughout this year's primary season, Republican incumbents who supported No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, comprehensive immigration reform, or TARP were routinely denounced as RINOs by opponents. Those happen to be four of the larger policy initiatives of the Bush administration.

Now outside of the slim ranks of the Paulists, few Republicans are critical of Bush 43's decision to invade Iraq, and his tax cuts remain wildly popular in the GOP. But you'd have to say that the Bush initiative that's really enjoying a renewed boom in support among Republicans this year is his failed effort to partially privatize Social Security, which is rapidly becoming an item of mandatory conservative orthodoxy.

Anti-Bush conservative revisionism has created an important strategic problem for Democrats, who have often sought to frame the midterm elections as a choice between moving ahead with the Obama administration or returning to the failed policies of the Bush era. With some justice, conservatives respond that they, too, have moved beyond Bushism, and voters report that they don't perceive the GOP as simply offering a return to pre-Obama policies.

The reality is that well before 2008, conservatives decided to separate themselves from the unpopular Bush by moving to his right, even as they explained his failures as resulting from infidelity to conservative principles. Epitomized by their 2008 vice-presidential nominee, they became "mavericks" by way of ever-more-intense ideological rigidity and polarization. This development nicely coincided with the immediate need to avoid going down the tubes with W., and with the conservative movement's ancient tendency to attribute all political failure to moderation and bipartisanship. Thus was born the Tea Party Movement in all but name.

Occasionally this determination to make ideological stridency the lodestar of GOP politics becomes too extreme for electoral respectability, as with Republican nominees like Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, Dan Maes of Colorado, and Sharron Angle of Nevada. But Democrats need to start making it clear that the only thing that separates O'Donnell from the average GOP politician is her personal financial record and a flair for wacky statements. If that means giving up on Bush-bashing, so be it; as President Clinton suggests, the target has really moved beyond the views of the 43d president.