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George W. Bush and last night's GOP debate

 

So far during this Republican presidential primary season, discussion of George W. Bush and his policies has been almost non-existent.

But at last night's GOP debate, He Who Must Not Be Named -- Bush -- was named by the candidates or moderator nine times.

And his presence over the debate was even bigger: Almost every heated exchange invoked, one way or another, policies, endorsements, or legislation from the Bush era.

No Child Left Behind. That infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." TARP. The 2001 airline bailout. The 2002 steel bailout. Even the 2004 Specter-vs.-Toomey primary.

With Mitt Romney highlighting and criticizing Rick Santorum's Senate record, perhaps it was inevitable that votes in the Bush era would receive a more thorough examination last night than in previous debates.

Still, all of last night's criticism of policies and endorsements from 2001 through 2008 -- some of which weren't all that controversial at the time -- reflects how much more conservative the Republican Party has become since the man who billed himself as the "compassionate conservative" sat in the Oval Office.

Perhaps the clearest example was Bush's signature education policy, No Child Left Behind.

Early in the debate, Romney charged Santorum for voting "to expand the Department of Education."

The former Pennsylvania senator replied, "I had some votes -- look, I think we all have had votes that I wish I wouldn't have voted to -- No Child Left Behind. You're right, it led to education spending. That's why I've said that we need to cut and eliminate No Child Left Behind."

Later, Santorum said he voted for No Child Left Behind because he was taking "one for the team" -- that is, the Bush White House.

"I have to admit I voted for that; it was against the principles I believed in. But, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake."

Santorum also took "one for the team" when he endorsed Arlen Specter in his 2004 primary fight against Pat Toomey -- a subject that Romney also raised at last night's debate. In fact, it may have well been Romney's most effective dig at Santorum.

"The reason we have 'Obamacare' -- the reason we have 'Obamacare' is because the senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the pro-choice senator of Pennsylvania that you supported and endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for 'Obamacare.'"

What was left unsaid in that exchange: The Bush White House asked Santorum to endorse Specter in that race, because it feared that a Toomey win would give Democrats a chance to win that Pennsylvania Senate seat in a presidential year (when John Kerry ultimately carried the state).

Also in the debate, Romney whacked Santorum for voting for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," which was tucked into legislation Bush signed into law in 2005.

"You voted for the "Bridge to Nowhere," Romney said. "I think these earmarks -- we've had it with them... The earmark process is broken."

But Santorum countered with an earmark that Romney sought for the Olympics.

"He's out there on television ads now unfortunately attacking me for saying that I'm this great earmarker, when he not only asked for earmarks for the Salt Lake Olympics, in the order of tens of millions of dollars," Santorum said of Romney.

That legislation in question? It became law when Bush was president in 2001.

And Santorum used another piece of legislation that became law during Bush's presidency -- the TARP bank bailout -- against Romney.

"[Romney] supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street."

Add up all of these examples, and last night's debate was the first time when George W. Bush's record -- directly or indirectly -- was criticized as much as Barack Obama's.