But on Wednesday, Reagan wasn’t the only former president to receive praise on-stage. Somewhat surprisingly, George W. Bush got a lot of love, too.
Witness this (condensed) exchange between Dubya’s younger brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and front-runner Donald Trump, who was talking about the banking crisis that escalated toward the end of Bush’s term:
TRUMP: Your brother and your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected.
BUSH: You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe.
Trump then countered by saying, “I don’t know. You feel safe right now? I don’t feel so safe.”
At which point Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker jumped in to defend both Bushes.
“That’s because of Barack Obama,” Walker said to Trump. “We’ve had a president who called ISIS the J.V. squad, Yemen a success story, Iran a place we can do business with. It’s not because of George W. Bush; it’s because of Barack Obama.”
Update 12:20 p.m. Thursday: Bush is now doubling down on his brother-praise, tweeting this shortly ago:
He kept us safe. pic.twitter.com/Plq9Hm7caE
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) September 17, 2015
And Walker wasn’t the only candidate on stage to defend, praise or even brag about a relationship with America’s once-Kryptonite 43rd president.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made sure to note President Bush named him a U.S. attorney, said he supported Bush’s actions after Sept. 11, 2001 — going into Afghanistan (Christie notably didn’t say Iraq), hunting al-Qaeda and proactively going after terrorism at its source.
“I am proud to have been one of the people on the stage who was part of making sure that what Gov. Bush said before was the truth,” Christie said. “America was safe for those seven years, and Barack Obama has taken that safety away from us.”
There’s more. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said Bush “is a great friend of ours.”
But Carson made sure to add later that he advised Bush not to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
That last point is more of what we expected to hear at Wednesday’s debate. While Bush’s approval ratings have climbed steadily after leaving office — a common thing for most ex-presidents — his Iraq war is still so unpopular that even his own brother has distanced himself (however awkwardly) from it.
In addition, four years after Bush left office, a 2013 Gallup poll showed that more Americans (69 percent) blamed Bush for the 2008 financial crisis than President Obama (53 percent).
In fact, up until this point in the 2016 campaign, almost no one in the Republican race had made a concerted effort to align themselves with the party’s most recent president. (There are some obvious exceptions when it comes to Jeb Bush, who has said his brother is one of his top advisers on Israel and who gave a foreign policy speech in August at the Ronald Reagan Library that tried to recast his brother’s role in Iraq.)
So, what gives? Do the Republican candidates know something we don’t? That maybe George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy in the Middle East is somehow popular again, or at least not something to run away from?
The Republican Party is, after all, having an increasingly hawkish discussion about putting boots on the ground in Syria to fight the Islamic State. It’s a proposal polls indicate could be popular with Republican primary voters (although less so with the general public).
There could also be a simpler answer. Perhaps being in the low-single-digits in the polls will make you try just about anything. And perhaps people are more apt to praise Bush now that his brother doesn’t look like much of a front-runner anymore.
All Jeb needed to do to get these guys to say nice things about his brother was fall to 6% in the polls.
— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlakeWP) September 17, 2015
Or perhaps enough time has passed since Bush’s White House that Republicans feel they can compliment him without any political repercussions. Time heals wounds and makes us forget why Bush’s approval rating was once 25 percent.
If that’s the case, who knows. Maybe one day they’ll even hold a Republican debate in front of George W. Bush’s Air Force One.