President Bush’s apparent criticism of Sen. Barack Obama while addressing the Israeli Knesset has sparked an election year furor.
The clamor was probably unavoidable.
Outgoing presidents can be an inevitable, sometimes combustible ingredient in the election of his successor.
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush told the Israeli parliament.
“We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’”
Bush also referred to Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Osama bin Laden. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters this passage was not an implicit criticism of Obama, who has said that as president he would meet with Iranian leaders with no preconditions.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who has long been critical of Bush’s Iraq policy, gave one of the most interesting reactions — interesting in part because some in Washington see Hagel as a potential running mate for Obama, should he be the Democratic nominee.
Hagel praises Obama
“I’m not sure who he was talking about or what he meant,” said Hagel late Thursday. “I’m not aware of any officials who have ever talked about a policy of dealing with terrorists.”
“I don’t know if the president was confused and if he was referencing Iran, or if he was referencing terrorists,” Hagel said.
He added, “I agree with Sen. Obama and many of us who have talked about engaging Iran.”
Hagel praised Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a speech Wednesday in which he called for diplomacy with the Iranian government.
“Sen. Obama, Sen. Biden, Gen. (Brent) Scowcroft, a number of us, have been saying for many years that great powers engage (in diplomacy),” said the Nebraska Republican.
'He diminishes the office'
“The president probably would have been better off staying on the high ground and not interjecting himself in politics,” he said. “I think he diminishes the office when he allows himself to sink down into the underbrush of petty politics.”
It can't be easy for an incumbent president at the end of two terms to sit on the sidelines and calmly watch the struggle over who will be his successor.
Sometimes presidents do too little during the campaign to help their party.
The hugely popular President Dwight Eisenhower could have campaigned harder and earlier for his vice president, Richard Nixon, the 1960 Republican candidate who lost by a whisker to John F. Kennedy.
According to Theodore H. White in the classic book "The Making of the President 1960," Eisenhower was eager to campaign for Nixon, but Nixon's strategists asked him to do so only for the final eight days of the campaign.
“Eisenhower, with his magic name, sat waiting for a call… that never came,” wrote White.
Nixon and his staff “who had been treated like boys for so many years by the Eisenhower people, now apparently itched to operate on their own.”
Sometimes an outgoing president is simply too dominant a personality, as Lyndon Johnson was in 1968 when his vice president, Hubert Humphrey was making his own bid for the White House.
Humphrey tried to distance himself from Johnson and his administration's Vietnam War policy.
At the angrily divided Democratic convention, Johnson was a looming presence even though he did not attend.
With a large portion of the delegates to the convention bitterly opposed to the war, Humphrey drew some boos when he addressed the California delegation and said, “I did not come here to repudiate the president,” and was booed again by some delegates when he mentioned Johnson’s name in his speech accepting the nomination.
Humphrey lost narrowly to Nixon in 1968.
Did Gore over-react to Clinton?
Sometimes the specter of the outgoing president causes his would-be successor to take questionable steps to demonstrate his independence.
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore chose Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman had been bluntly critical of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Some saw Lieberman as a morally upright antidote to Clinton.
In retrospect, many Democrats wish that Gore hadn’t chosen Lieberman. They now say he did not help the ticket, although it’s impossible to say whether any of the alternative running mates would have fared any better.
Then there’s the question of where Bill Clinton campaigned — or did not campaign — in the autumn of 2000.
Gore lost Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Clinton had carried all four states in 1996 and 1992.
Forget Florida; if Gore had carried even one of those four states, he would have been president.
But would Clinton have really helped, or hurt, Gore by campaigning in Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri?
Were the remembered television images of Lewinsky hugging Clinton too vivid to risk deploying the president there in 2000?
These are unsolvable mysteries — and stark illustrations of the power of the outgoing president to influence the election of his successor.
Clinton did campaign in Kentucky one week before the election, but not in other contested states.
Associated Press White House correspondent Terrence Hunt reported that Gore's staff feared that “Clinton's presence in battleground states could alienate swing voters, particularly women whose support is vital for the vice president.”
In the final days of the campaign, Clinton said a vote for Gore would be "the next best thing" to a third term for himself, a comment that caused some Democrats to cringe.
The conventional wisdom among Democrats is that the more Bush is a part of the 2008 campaign, the better it is for Democrats.
That’s why Obama supporter Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. was smiling Thursday night when he said, “I don’t think there’s any question he’s getting himself involved, but he was involved prior to today.”
Is Bush credible?
One remarkable aspect of the Bush Knesset controversy is that most Democrats have argued since 2003 that Bush has no credibility — and yet they still react to him as if they feared his words might be believed by some voters.
“He’s still the president of the United States,” said Casey. “What does it do to our standing around the world when the leader of our country is saying the kinds of things he’s been saying lately about Democrats? When he goes to the length he has gone to damage the Democratic candidates I don’t think that helps us in the world.”
Asked if there were Republican risks to Bush's speaking out as he did at the Knesset, Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas said, “He’s still president of the United States. He’s entitled to comment on those matters (Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran), but this shouldn’t be an election between George Bush and Obama.”
“The Democrats are trying to make an issue out of Bush and claim that somehow McCain is running for Bush’s third term,” the Texan said. “So I think that’s a risk. But I don’t expect the president not to express himself on the important issues of the day, but I also am not surprised when Democrats try to make it part of the presidential campaign.”