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This Is George Bush's Recession: Why Doesn't Anybody Talk About That?

If the partisan tables were turned, the GOP would waste no time laying the blame on Democrats. We need to do the same to build political capital for key fights ahead.

In October, Barack Obama told a San Francisco audience about what it was like trying to deal with an economy he’d inherited in smoking ruins last January. “I'm busy … cleaning up somebody else's mess,” he said. “We don't want somebody sitting back saying, you're not holding the mop the right way… That's a socialist mop." As the audience applauded the line, Obama challenged Republicans to "Grab a mop, let's get to work."

The image of cleaning up after his predecessor’s mess pleased pundits like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that "get a mop” is "an inspired three-word challenge to the GOP. Devastating, actually -- because it both reminds people of the damage the GOP did while not seeming to dwell on the past or to score partisan points (while actually doing both).”  

It’s certainly punchy, but perhaps unnecessarily oblique. Given that even a recent Fox News poll found that almost six in 10 voters believe Bush bears the ultimate responsibility for the recession we’re staggering through, you have to wonder why Democrats aren’t simply referring to all of this as "the Bush recession."

One thing is certain: were the partisan tables turned, every elected Republican, conservative columnist, right-wing blogger and hate-radio gabber would be repeating the phrase ad nauseam, but progressives have always lacked that kind of message discipline. In a 2004 interview, legendary right-wing activist Richard Viguerie -- an instrumental figure building the conservative movement since the 1960s -- told me that his side has an inherent advantage in top-down message discipline because modern conservatives "are descended from monarchists,” and have a "natural instinct to follow the king."

So it has been as Washington scrambles to rescue the tanking economy. Republicans have offered consistently hollow sound bites about creeping socialism and government takeovers, and Democrats have come up with clever ways to "frame" the issue (grab that mop!), but haven’t consistently played the age-old and rather straightforward game of laying blame for calamity at the door of one’s political opponent.  

Calling the mess we’re facing the “Bush Recession” isn’t a matter of looking back out of spite, but of developing political capital for some key fights ahead. There’s a potentially ugly battle with Wall Street coming up over financial reform. There are calls for more stimulus, new jobs programs and more relief for those suffering the most as a result of the crash. There’s value in tying those already lined up to defend the status quo on Wall Street, or who’d deny more assistance to “Main Street,” to the least popular president in memory and reminding people that the economy was never going to be a quick fix even in the best-case scenario. 

Yet just as the Obama administration has been reticent to tackle the nation’s crushing jobs and foreclosure crises, officials have also been hesitant to hold Bushenomics explicitly accountable for the mess. That’s likely a matter of style -- Obama has always tried not to appear overly partisan. But it’s a missed opportunity -- a chance to channel the fury caused by nearly one in four U.S. homeowners with underwater mortgages and the debilitating loss of jobs over the past three years (illustrated with devastating effect in this animated county-by-county map depicting the rise in unemployment since 2007). 

Of course, the reality is that anyone who grasps the dynamics leading up to the Great Recession will agree that it’s not really Bush’s (or any president’s) recession -- there’s ample blame to go around, in Congress as well as the White House, in both parties and on Wall Street. The wave of deregulation that caused the economy to crest and crash under Bush Jr. in 2008 started under Reagan and accelerated under the elder Bush and Bill Clinton. The cheap money that fueled the last two bubbles started flowing in earnest under Clinton -- overseen by some of Obama’s most trusted advisers -- and Bush just kept the spigot open.  

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