WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush may feel "no need to defend" himself this week before the opening of his presidential library on Thursday, but that's not true for many of those who served in his administration.
Bush loyalists have been working for weeks, if not months, on a communications plan to maximize the positive impact this week on the legacy of their former boss, the 43rd president.
"We know there will be a lot of attacks waged by the left, but there's also an opportunity here for those of us who served to set the record straight on some things and get some facts out there that the president has chosen not to do, to his credit," Ed Gillespie, a former White House adviser to Bush, told The Huffington Post.
But as people from Bush's world have mobilized to carry their banner forward, they have been met with resistance not just from the left, but also from those who are politically aligned with them or who are sympathetic to their point of view, yet think that promoting Bush's record harms the GOP.
Leading the counter charge has been a policy expert who is not a Republican, but who did support the Iraq War: Walter Russell Mead, a Yale professor, foreign policy intellectual and prodigious blogger.
"The American public largely believes that Bush failed, and no matter how many blog posts ex-Bush officials write, that isn’t going to change anytime soon," Mead wrote on his blog, Via Meadia.
"There are lots of intelligent people out there who think this is a gross injustice, and want the national conversation to focus on setting the record straight," Mead wrote. "For its own sake the Republican Party has to deafen itself to their piteous pleas; they are sirens luring the sailors to their destruction on the rocks."
Mead's argument drew an angry response from former Bush adviser Peter Wehner, who called it a "shallow and misleading attack." Wehner litigated a number of policy points, provoking Mead into an equally biting riposte. Another former Bush administration official, Will Inboden, steered clear of the vitriol and offered a thoughtful and persuasive argument that Mead overlooked several significant Bush successes and perpetuated a "caricature."
The pushback from Wehner and Inboden, as well as from another former Bushie, Peter Feaver, did expose some holes in Mead's assessment of the Bush presidency. But even if Mead overlooked some of the things Bush did well, he was making a broader point. Criticism of the Bush presidency, Mead argued, can't be greeted with bugle calls to mount the ramparts and launch a counterattack. Rather, the Republican Party must put most of its effort into thinking deeply and explaining how its policies are going to achieve different results than what the nation saw under Bush: namely, two wars that went badly for a very long time and an economic collapse.
Many on the right have concluded that Bush lost the GOP advantage on spending by not doing more to restrain it, and that he lost the party's foreign policy advantage with his misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush supporters believe the advantage can be regained by disputing the critiques and pointing out where Bush was successful, and that's what they're doing this week. The Mead camp thinks this is a fool's errand, because the Bush brand is still too badly damaged to gain a hearing from most Americans.
"Bush may be impressed by the devotion that so many partisans still show to his failed tenure, but no one else is, and it undermines the credibility of everything that Bush’s loyalists have to say," wrote Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative, a conservative magazine founded in 2002 in opposition to the Iraq War. "The fact that these loyalists refuse to take friendly and constructive criticism from someone who is mostly sympathetic to Bush just makes Mead’s point for him."
In other words, squabbling over how much blame Bush should get for what went wrong during his presidency is a wasted exercise, the Mead camp argues, at a time when the GOP needs to move quickly to make up lost ground.
"Whatever you blame it on, the Republican Party is viewed as being out of step with a significant number of people," conservative writer Ben Domenech said in a debate with Wehner at Furman University last week.
Domenech wrote a few days later that Bush's legacy "is of a lighter tax burden, a safer country, and a destroyed Republican Party."
Erick Erickson, who runs RedState.com, sided with Mead and Domenech.
"Until the GOP is willing to say that maybe, just maybe, TARP, No Child Left Behind, 'Big Government conservatism,' Medicare Part D, the Genera Motors bailout, the handling of Katrina, etc. etc. etc. are not worth defending the GOP cannot move on," Erickson wrote on Tuesday. "But to move on from those, the GOP must first move on from those who brought us those things. It’s never easy asking friends, colleagues, and consultants to go sit on the sidelines. But the GOP must."
Bush supporters working this week on the former president's image are not willing to throw their leader under the bus.
"He commands a great deal of loyalty, obviously," Gillespie told HuffPost. "There's a great deal of personal loyalty and affection for him. I tell people after a little over 18 months by his side, 20 months I guess it was, I felt like I was a better person for knowing him. That's how a lot of us feel."
And in fact, there is some evidence to support the notion that the time is ripe to push for a reappraisal of Bush. His approval rating has improved from 33 percent to 47 percent from January 2009 to present day, while his disapproval rating has declined from 66 percent to 50 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week. Yet the Iraq War remains a millstone, with only 40 percent approving of his decision and 57 percent disapproving, though that is up from a low of 28 percent approving and 70 percent disapproving in December 2006, before the surge.
It's likely that in the long term, Bush's presidency and the Iraq War will be judged more circumspectly by scholars and historians. Feaver pointed to a recent lecture by University of Virginia history professor Melvyn Leffler, in which he called for a more nuanced examination of why Bush invaded Iraq.
The conventional wisdom, Leffler said, is that "out of a sense of overweening power and moral hubris the Bush administration unnecessarily went to war and made things infinitely worse for the United States and for Iraq."
"I'm trying to complicate this interpretation, not rebut it," Leffler said. "I do think that moral hubris and a sense of overweening power motivated the decision, but there were other critical factors as well: fear, threat perception, guilt about 9/11 having taken place, a sense of responsibility to prevent another attack, a complicated web of domestic political calculations, preoccupation with credibility."
Bush himself is devoting energy in his post-office life to an initiative he started while in office, helping to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and cervical cancer in Africa. That part of his legacy will likely improve his reputation over the coming years, as the contentious argument over Bush's foreign policy and spending record continues to play out.
Feaver argued that there doesn't need to be tension between advancing the GOP's political fortunes and defending Bush's presidency.
"I am confident that ... a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds," he said. "And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is."