It seems fitting that, in the run-up to Halloween, two spectral presidents are haunting the campaign for the White House—George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Bush is rarely seen on the stump in person. Few GOP candidates want to appear with him, except at private fundraisers, because his policies have become so unpopular and fewer than 3 in 10 Americans think he is doing a good job. But Bush casts a very long shadow. He is a regular target for Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates and, increasingly, for Republican nominee John McCain. Day in and day out, Bush is being blamed for America's economic meltdown, for the soaring budget deficits, for the Iraq war, and for America's lowered standing around the world.
Even Bush's attempt to address the international financial crisis by convening a meeting of world leaders next month is being met with derision. "It's like the captain of the Titanic holding a seminar on how to navigate the Atlantic shipping lanes," says Matthew Dowd, a former Bush political adviser who broke with him over the Iraq war.
McCain had been walking a tightrope between criticizing the president and remaining loyal to his party's two-time standard-bearer. But Bush's popularity is at such a low ebb that, in the past week, McCain has jumped away from Bush more than ever.
On Monday, the Arizona senator told supporters in Hershey, Pa., "We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: hoping for our luck to change at home and abroad. We have to act. We need a new direction, and we have to fight for it." McCain argues that while he and Bush share a "Republican philosophy," he has broken with the president on some major issues, such as McCain's willingness to aggressively combat climate change and his support for campaign finance reform.
Obama is stepping up his criticism of Bush and is forever attempting to tie McCain to the incumbent. In Chester, Pa., on Tuesday, Obama said, "Now, in the closing days of this campaign, my opponent is trying to distance himself from the president he has faithfully supported 90 percent of the time. He's supported four of the five Bush budgets that have taken us from the surpluses of the Clinton years to the largest deficits in history. John McCain has ridden shotgun as George Bush has driven our economy toward a cliff, and now he wants to take the wheel and step on the gas."
White House officials declined comment on Bush as a lightning rod, saying they want to keep out of the campaign debate.
Not so for Bill Clinton. He is back on the campaign trail, again, seeking a measure of redemption. He was very critical of Obama—some Democrats said harshly divisive—during the primaries. But he is now starting a final campaign swing for the man who defeated his wife for the Democratic nomination.
Obama and Bill Clinton will appear together Wednesday in the Orlando area, and the former president has a full schedule of other events designed to boost turnout for Obama and the party's other candidates in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.
As the campaign builds to Election Day on Tuesday, Clinton is sure to make news. The former president has up to now seemed relatively ambivalent about Obama, especially when compared with the strong endorsements given to Obama by Hillary Clinton.
Last month, the former president praised McCain as a "great man" in an interview with NBC's Meet the Press, but he added that Obama's policies are superior to McCain's. In addition, Clinton said, Obama has shown "a remarkable ability to learn and grow...and he just keeps getting better."
Clinton added: "I am developing a really good relationship with Senator Obama."
The nature of that relationship will become clearer in the next few days.