George W. Bush is everywhere and nowhere in the 2012 presidential race.
Reviled by Democrats and generally avoided as a campaign talking point by his fellow Republicans, the former president is in a self-imposed political exile — an absence that was underscored in the last two weeks as his father and brother backed Mitt Romney.
Bush's only presence in the Republican campaign is by association, as President Barack Obama's campaign and national Democrats pin three years of recession and the now-unpopular Mideast wars on the 43rd president. More than 40 percent of voters still blame Bush for the nation's economic problems. Congressional Republicans hold him at a distance, and some have faulted his policies for helping to give rise to the unpredictable tea party movement.
"It saddens me, because I think that President Bush, through a perilous time for our country, kept us safe," said former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "And people forget he came in with a recession, he left with a recession but in the middle, the economy boomed."
Like many former Bush hands, most of whom declined to speak for the record, Fleischer suggested Bush is getting a raw deal from his fellow Republicans.
"He's taken a lot of hits, and politicians know how to read polls, and I understand why they're not asking President Bush to stand at their side. But I think it's unfortunate," Fleischer said.
But instead of looking for a second act once off the stage like Bill Clinton — who eagerly interjected himself into the 2008 Democratic primary between his wife and Obama — Bush is, except for speeches and personal travel, in virtual hiding in Texas, where he bought a home in Dallas. Yet friends and former aides say that he has chosen to be in the wings.
"George W. Bush has never needed the mirror of politics to reflect who he is," said former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, describing Bush as "at peace" with his current life.
But while none would say it, the reality is that 2012 candidates view Bush with caution. After all, Romney has recruited just about every town council member and state representative in the country as surrogates, but Bush's absence as the primary comes to an end — and as his closest blood relatives made endorsements — is glaring.
A spokesman for the former president said he had "no plans to endorse, at least not at present."
Last week, Bush junior was the elephant in the room for reporters who attended the Texas event at which George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, officially threw their support to Romney. Asked if he had visited with Bush while he was traveling through the Lone Star State, Romney said that he had not but that the two men speak "from time to time."
But a more revealing moment came as the trio exited the room. "Has he endorsed you?" H.W. Bush asked Romney, who replied, "Uh, no, no."
"We'll talk about that," Barbara Bush said.
It was an awkward conversation fragment. Yet even three years after he left office, Bush remains politically toxic, and his foreign policy is still being debated as pieces of it survive in the Obama administration. As for domestic policy, Obama has been running against the Bush record long since the former president left office, creating a delicate situation for his GOP rivals.
Romney rarely talks about Bush on the campaign trail, save for the day he received former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's backing. That day, Romney gave a full-throated defense of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the widely unpopular bank bailout that was approved in the waning months of the Bush White House. Rick Santorum has repeatedly apologized for voting for Bush's signature education plank, "No Child Left Behind." The prescription drug benefit that Bush spearheaded in 2003, an entitlement program that has added to the national debt, was another vote that Santorum has disavowed.
McKinnon said his own surprise at the way Republicans generally have responded to Bush is "tempered by recognition that politicians who make difficult decisions and lead through times of conflicts are rarely popular in their own time. But history often takes a different view."
Bush's behavior is a stark contrast post-presidency to Clinton, a political animal who, even in his final year in office, got involved in his wife's run for Senate in New York. He was highly popular after departing the White House and was heavily deployed by John Kerry as a surrogate in the 2004 presidential race. His brush with mortality during that presidential cycle after a heart ailment merely added to a sense of Clinton as a sympathetic figure.
Clinton remained one of his party's major rainmakers.
Yet Bush has never had the political neediness of Clinton and is not spurred on by what Fleischer dubbed "the roar of the crowd."
"So much of it is voluntary," Fleischer said about Bush's isolation. "I think President Bush is happy to be enjoying his private life. I don't think he craves or misses life on the stump."
Indeed, while many in the Republican Party may be eager to turn the page on Bush, former aides to the 43rd president say that's a two-way phenomenon: Bush, too, has happily moved on from politics as a profession.
He has written a book, which he published in 2010. He has been working on the development of a presidential library in his name. He gives paid speeches, and he established, after being asked by his father, a relief fund with Clinton for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
To the extent that he remains engaged in politics and government, it is through private conversations with politicians who seek him out, and through his support for specific charitable causes.
"Believe me there are lots of political candidates that would love to have his active support. This isn't some strategic ploy, it's vintage George W. Bush who has made a decision," said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a top Romney supporter who served as Bush's secretary of health and human services.
Leavitt recalled Bush telling him before the end of the administration that he was "done with politics," explaining: "Lots of people leave office and feel a need to continue to wield political influence — I won't."
"The truth is when you've been president of the United States for two terms, as a practical matter there is little place for political ambition," Leavitt said. "I know his counsel is sought privately by various figures and he freely offers it. And, it is valued because he's well informed and has a unique perspective. However, he obviously has chosen to open a new chapter in his life and is focusing on bringing value to the world a different way."
POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.