Former President George W. Bush appeared at a Bush Center Freedom Collection event on March 28 in Dallas.
Former President George W. Bush appeared at a Bush Center Freedom Collection event on March 28 in Dallas. Tony Gutierrez/AP
George W. Bush wrestled with one drawback of retaining a political legacy Tuesday, acknowledging that in some circles his name is a bad word.
"I wish they weren't called the 'Bush tax cuts,' " the former president said at a conference in New York on Tuesday. "If they're called somebody else's tax cuts, they're probably less likely to be raised."
Some scholars of political language say Bush may have a point.
"Our understanding of our past is digested into rhetoric, and when the rhetoric consists of people's names, those names are carrying meaning in addition to the meaning of the legislation," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center and its FactCheck.org project.
Jamieson says that "Democrats gain an advantage if they can label them 'Bush tax cuts' because Bush was an extremely unpopular president at the end of his last term."
The actual laws — the "Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001" and the "Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003" — were extended last year by President Obama in a deal with Republicans.
Yet the Obama campaign hopes to use those tax cuts for wealthy Americans as a re-election issue. By continuing to call them the "Bush tax cuts," Jamieson says, Democrats are hoping voters have "historical amnesia" and forget that Obama "signed on to the extension."
In contrast, Jamieson points to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law as a historical example of legislation that intentionally used lawmakers' names to convey a positive message of bipartisanship.
In that instance, she says, the names of Republican Sen. John McCain and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold were attached to the bill to make a point that campaign finance rules were "so badly broken in the view of Republicans and Democrats that a liberal and conservative worked together to fix it."
In a campaign year, the term "Bush tax cuts" will likely stick because it has political advantages for both parties. And Republicans are more than ready to stand by the tax cuts.
"Democrats will get by with calling them 'the Bush tax cuts' because Republicans like the idea of being associated with tax cuts even if it associates them with a president who is carrying baggage for the party at the moment," says Jamieson.
Some Democrats, however, dismiss Bush's comments and say disapproval of the tax cuts runs deeper than a name.
"The opposition by Democrats to the Bush tax cuts for the upper-income brackets are based on the plan more than the man," says public opinion analyst Peter D. Hart. "The public thinks the wealthy are the beneficiaries of the tax plan, and, therefore, they are opposed. It is that simple."
Either way, Bush isn't likely to get his wish to dissociate himself from the cuts. At least for now, the name is here to stay.