Even though the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses are weeks away, there is already a clear winner in the Republican camp for the 2016 election season. It's not Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Marco Rubio - but George W. Bush.
There is no doubt about it: George W. Bush is on everybody's mind this election season. His faltering brother, and former Florida governor, Jeb is running a campaign in which he is fervently trying to dissociate himself from the family name by using an exclamation mark instead of his surname. To no avail. In July W. and predecessor Bill Clinton amicably posed for the cover of "Time" and discussed "the family business." And with the fear of Islamic terrorism after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks - the "war on terror" and the man who coined the term - isn't far from the minds of voters. Or Republican hopefuls.
"I'm tired of beating on Bush. I miss George W. Bush! I wish he were president right now!" South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham exclaimed during the undercard segment of the Republican debate last week. According to the hawkish conservative, who suspended his presidential bid on Monday, Bush 43 would have been a better commander in chief in the current struggle against the so-called "Islamic State" than President Obama.
Although the Republican frontrunners later that night carefully avoided mentioning the former president while debating the legitimacy of regime change in the Middle East, the legacy of W.'s administration haunted the stage.
The debate on terror is one on the Bush doctrine
"I think Lindsey Graham genuinely wishes Bush was still president. He probably also wishes Ronald Reagan was still president," Roger Sacher Jr. of the New York Young Republican Club says. Faced with the alternative - a Democratic president - most Republicans would agree with Graham, he thinks.
But this summer a CNN/ORC poll revealed that even non-Republicans might feel the same way. For the first time in a decade more Americans liked George W. Bush than disliked him. Fifty-two percent of adults had a favorable impression of him, against just a third when he vacated the office in 2009, leaving behind an embattled economy with a huge deficit, protracted wars and a destabilized Middle East. At that time Republicans were the only group that looked positively at his presidency, albeit a mere 50 percent of them.
It's not just the fading campaign of Jeb Bush that makes the public and politicians focus on his older brother. With terror back on the political agenda, there is the fundamental question of what our foreign policy is going to be, Sacher says.
"The political debate is about whether the Bush doctrine is still viable politically and domestically." Like most Republicans, Sacher thinks the solution to the terrorist threat is to crush IS. "I would argue the blueprint for that would be the last time we went in to crush a terror group. And that was al Qaeda in Afghanistan."
George W. Bush a paragon of statesmanship
There's no doubt that the current field of Republican candidates make the American public look back more fondly to the shoot-from-the-hip "decider," as he once dubbed himself. It was telling that days before Senator Graham's remarks comedian Will Ferrell, in the guise of Bush announced his run for president on comedy show "Saturday Night Live." "The field of Republicans out there is so messed up I figured it makes you miss me, doesn't it?"
After 9/11, Bush 43, went out of his way to assure Muslim Americans that the country was not at war with them or their faith. Candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson would rather divide the country with anti-Islamic rhetoric. "Compared to Donald Trump, George W. Bush looks like a paragon of statesmanship," "The End of History" author Francis Fukuyama wrote in "Time" earlier this month.
It's as if current events are rewriting the history of the - according to most historians - not very successful presidency. In the recently released biography "Destiny and Power," father George H. W. Bush lashed out at former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for their roles in his son's presidency.
"For a time there was an incorrect view that W. was a dope and a puppet of his vice president," says George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and the author of numerous books on the presidency. "But the buck did stop at 43. Most people are comfortable to hold George W. Bush accountable. Although views on him have changed slightly, it's not like the public looks back on a golden age."
Bush is far from rehabilitated, according to Edwards. "There is too little new information to evaluate him by."
Millennials keen on W.
Millennials, who were too young to remember much of the Bush presidency, skip over the partisan divide. In December 2013 "Vanity Fair" dubbed 'Dubya' a "bona fide hipster icon." It pointed out how Bush 43's paintings of his dog Barney and several statesmen sparked a frenzy online, with media like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post seemingly unable to get enough of sharing pictures of his artistic work.
The former president was cool again. U2 frontman Bono debated the wisdom of being photographed with W. near the end of his presidency, "Vanity Fair" wrote, while four years later, the rock star posed for a selfie with Bush at Nelson Mandela's memorial service.
"With the passage of time people forget why they didn't like a president," says Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and author. The former president and his wife's very active work to promote women's rights and education reform at their Bush Center in Dallas, his hugely successful memoir and his book about his father have softened the hard edges of his politics, he adds.
Smith compares the end of a polarizing presidency with the return of a space capsule. "It heats up terribly as it re-enters the atmosphere. But then it completes the journey, splashes and cools down. Presidents undergo a firestorm during their time in office." After a while passions cool. In the case of George W. Bush, an icebucket for the ALS challenge in the summer of 2014 may have helped.