One of the most telling aspects of the 2012 presidential campaign now racing to its end is the matter of the vanishing former two-term Republican president. His name is so seldom mentioned by his party's nominee and other stalwarts as to take on the characteristic of a toxic distant uncle.
That other GOP two-termer, Ronald Reagan, continues posthumously to enjoy the stature of political sainthood among the faithful. But the 43rd president, who is the son and namesake of the 41st, has been neither seen nor heard from in the blizzard of speech-making and television advertising by and in behalf of party standard-bearer Mitt Romney.
Yes, the missing person in the picture would be George W. Bush, now seemingly under party house arrest back in Texas as Mr. Romney runs as far away as he can get from Mr. Bush and his White House tenure. Memories of the junior Bush economic hangover haunt not only President Barack Obama, still struggling to recover from it, but also the Republican who wants Mr. Bush's old job.
At a time when his rival Obama plans a closing campaign swing with former two-term President Bill Clinton, Mr. Romney keeps Dubya on the sidelines and out of mind. He's obviously fearful voters will be reminded of what the previous Republican president wrought domestically and abroad in his eight-year reign.
In the second presidential debate, when Mr. Romney was asked by an undecided voter how he differed from the junior President Bush, he pleaded that they were "different people, and these are different times." He said he would "crack down on China" and balance the budget but "President Bush didn't," and he would focus on small business whereas "the party" focused more on big business. And he said he would do away with "Obamacare," which was barely a twinkle in Mr. Obama's eye when Mr. Bush was president.
Mr. Obama shot back that the country was losing 800,000 jobs a month when he took over from Mr. Bush, and then created 5.2 million jobs over 31 straight months. He left unmentioned the 8 percent unemployment that lingered, but he noted that the Bush tax cuts were "what took us from surplus (in the Clinton years) to deficit."
Then Mr. Obama went on to suggest that Mr. Romney was even worse than Mr. Bush. "George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher," he said. "George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation" — a reference to Mr. Romney's suggestion that illegal aliens take themselves back to their countries and apply for legal immigration. "George Bush never suggested he would eliminate Planned Parenthood."
Mr. Romney remained silent as Mr. Obama thus pitched for support from Hispanics and women. Left unsaid by the president was Mr. Bush's war of choice in Iraq, which Mr. Romney supported. He also had originally disagreed with Mr. Obama's timetable for a 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. That latter subject came up in the third debate, with Mr. Romney now agreeing with the president, the latest evidence of his reconversion from being "severely conservative" back to his Massachusetts moderation.
In all this, the 43rd president of the United States remained the little man who wasn't there, as far as Mitt Romney was concerned — or at least he wished it to be so. All through Mr. Romney's campaign for the GOP nomination and thereafter, Dubya continued in Republican circles to be a bad memory to be wiped away with the perceived glory years of Ronald Reagan.
Yet Mr. Obama has seemed to have little success calling on voters to remember the junior Bush years as responsible for the deep economic hole from which he had to spend his first term lifting the country. He tried it and failed in the 2010 congressional elections; he is trying again, with only mild indications of recovery to back his case.
Mr. Obama obviously hopes that campaigning down the stretch with Bill Clinton will help Democrats and independents hearken back to better economic times. Meanwhile, Republicans try to get more comfortable with Mr. Romney — with no Dubya in sight to remind voters of times and a president they'd rather forget.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.