Responding to a question about the lousy state of the economy, President Obama essentially blames George W. Bush. His predecessor, he says, wrecked the economy with a bunch of discredited policies. He, Obama, is prepared to lead us Forward. Romney would take us back to the old days.
Here's how Romney should respond:
"The President seems to wish he was running against George W. Bush. [pause] Let me say something. George W. Bush is an honorable man. I respect and deeply appreciate the way he kept our nation safe after 9/11. But I have some differences with him, particularly regarding some of his economic policies. My leadership and presidency would be very different from his. So respectfully, Mr. President, you don't get to run against George W. Bush. You're running against Mitt Romney."Then he moves on to more substantive comments about the economy.
Why should Romney do this?
It's a clear message. It doesn't get much simpler than "I'm not George W. Bush." And because ROMNEY REPUDIATES BUSH is a process story, the media will report it breathlessly. It will be the theme of the night. It will be on the Today show the next morning. It will cut through the noise to reach less engaged voters.
It's a message Romney needs voters to hear. George W. Bush left office with terrible approval ratings. His presidency is widely regarded as a failure, even by many Republicans. Obama says over and over that Bush's "failed policies" "got us into this mess," and whether that's fair or not, millions of people believe it. Republicans make fun of Obama for blaming everything on Bush, but the truth is that Obama keeps doing it because it's effective. Bush is not a figure Romney can afford to be lashed to. So cut the knot.
It communicates strength. "I'm my own man" is a statement of strength and, well . . . manliness. It's something ordinary people can understand and identify with. Rhetorically, calling Obama out on his run-against-Bush strategy makes Romney look smart and agile. Obama is undeniably trying to get away with something, but Romney essentially holds up his hand and says – affably, but firmly – "Sorry, buddy, I'm not gonna let you do that." It could be Romney's there-you-go-again moment.
It doesn't look too disloyal. Romney wasn't Bush's vice-president, a member of his administration, or a close confidant. He's not stabbing a mentor in the back; he's stating a policy difference. Bush can read polls and would probably approve of this move. Plus, Romney calls him "an honorable man" and praises part of his presidency (the popular part). Finally, Obama's willingness to throw people under the bus when it suits him has become a bit of a meme, so he's not in a great position to shout "disloyalty!"
For this maneuver to work in a debate, it has to be executed deftly. If it's bungled, it could do more harm than good. I'd be shocked if Obama were not prepared for Romney to do this (after all, it's the logical thing for Romney to do!). Romney should expect Obama to fire back something witty about how Romney sure seems awfully similar to Bush, and Romney should be prepared with a comeback himself.
And of course, Romney should be prepared to say what he would have done differently from Bush. He doesn't have to get too specific here, and he could use that question to gently ding Bush while pointing out that Democrats share plenty of blame for the financial crisis (Barney Frank and Fannie Mae, anyone?).
But this is my prediction: If Romney throws Bush under the bus, and does it resolutely and with good humor, the headlines on October 4 will be "Romney: 'I'm No George W. Bush." Pundits will be tweeting about Romney's "game-changing" debate. The Obama campaign will be scrambling to respond. And voters will be taking a new look at this candidate who says he's his own man, not like that other guy they didn't like.
Oh, and George W. Bush will be dusting off the bus tracks. He'll be fine.