Image: George W. Bush, "Mission Accomplished" sign
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
On Wednesday, combat operations ended in Iraq. And George W. Bush, who intiated that war, was nowhere to be found.
updated 8/20/2010 3:31:58 PM ET 2010-08-20T19:31:58

Seven years ago, then-President George W. Bush stood beneath a banner on an aircraft carrier and declared that “major combat operations” in Iraq had ended. Wednesday, they actually did — and, by design, Bush was nowhere to be seen.

It was a moment of political closure brought to us not by Bush, but by his successor, who delivered on a campaign promise that was the original seed from which his campaign for president grew.

As a candidate, Barack Obama vowed to end the “war” in Iraq. And though troops will remain, skirmishes will continue, and there’s no guarantee that the age-old sectarian forces in Mesopotamia won’t resume their bloody rivalry — Bush’s war is over.

Bush thinks that history will be kind to him, but that is unlikely. The war cost America more than 4,000 lives, at least a trillion dollars, and a serious loss of world esteem. And it left behind a country with no ruling government and an ever stronger Iran.

And yet, at the same time, the former president is enjoying a mini-moment of grudging acceptance, if not affection, in America.

He doesn’t dare take note of it himself, at least publicly. Were he to swagger back onto the stage, Republican friends say, the mellowing mood would evaporate — and complicate the GOP’s effort to win back Congress.

But it’s real. Several factors have combined to make it so: Obama’s declining political standing, the continuing economic crisis, the rise of divisive issues such as immigration and Islam in America (on which Bush is seen as a comparative moderate), and new fault lines within the GOP.

To answer the billboard question of a year ago — Do You Miss Him Yet? — the answer about Bush remains “no.” But it’s less emphatic than it was a few months ago.

Politics, especially the presidential kind, is a game of comparison. Bush is benefiting from the physics of Obama’s decline. The current president’s job-approval rating in the new Gallup Poll is at a personal low of 41 percent. (The overall poll average is 45 percent, still low by Obama standards.)

In the last year, Obama’s overall “favorable” rating — a measure of personal regard for a president, past or present — has dropped from 62 percent to 52 percent, while Bush’s has risen from 35 percent to 45 percent as of mid-July. The two trends seem likely to continue.

Bush has been the beneficiary of weeks worth of back-handed compliments from the national punditocracy, which is sharply critical of the Tea Party’s (and other conservatives’ views) on immigration and the construction of an Islamic Community Center two blocks from the Ground Zero site in Manhattan.

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It’s been widely noted that Bush was, especially by today’s standards, a moderate and rhetorically benign figure on both issues: pushing for an immigration reform bill that would have offered a “path to citizenship” for many illegals, and stressing from the outset of the “war on terror” that he deeply respected Islam and its message of peaceful submission to God.

Some key figures from the Bush era, including former solicitor Ted Olson and tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, have come out in support of building the Islamic Center at the site.

Several writers — including those who lost no love for Bush when he was president — have used him as a foil for attacking Tea Party activists who support sweeping anti-immigration measures (such as Arizona’s law and a change in the 14th Amendment), and for attacking those who oppose the Islam site.

Bush has remained studiously silent on both matters — and on anything else having directly to do with politics.

That very silence, advisers and friends say, has a lot to do with why more independents and even a few Democrats are looking at him tolerantly, if not fondly. “He’s playing the role of the statesman, and in good part that means keeping a respectful silence,” said Brian Walsh of the GOP Senatorial Committee.

Nor will rising poll numbers — let alone a few nice mentions on the op-ed page of The New York Times — lure Bush into making public comments offering to campaign for Republican candidates.

Leaders of the party campaign committees are making it clear, publicly and privately, that they don’t want to see or hear him on the trail. “We want to keep the focus exclusively Obama and on his record,” said Ken Spain of the GOP House Committee.

Bush is more than willing to go along with that — and his longtime “architect,” Karl Rove, privately advises him to continue to lay low. The former president and his wife, Laura, made an appearance at a Dallas USO last week, to welcome troops home from Iraq. Pictures of the event were posted on Facebook, but that was the only stone dropped in the publicity pond.

Party strategists hope this was the PR highpoint for now. “If Bush engages in any way, if he gets in the debate or answers back, then he becomes the story, which is precisely what we don’t want, “ said a top GOP official. “He cannot engage under any circumstances.”

Democrats are still hoping to leverage Bush’s unpopularity in November. In a new ad, the DNC warns against “going back to the same Republican policies that got us into this mess” before featuring Bush’s statement “fool me once, you can't get fooled again.”

Bush and Rove have privately assured party officials that the big promotional blitz for Bush’s auto-biography, “Decision Points,” won't begin until AFTER Election Day, on Nov. 2. The “pub date” of the book is Nov. 9, and insiders hope to keep the contents private until then. “A former president does not need to leak tidbits to generate publicity,” Rove told me.

We’ll see if that vow holds — and if Bush (and his party) are enjoying another, even bigger moment in November.

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