Blame Bush if you don't like the GOP 2012 field

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In 2010, the Tea Party helped elect legions of solid conservatives to Congress, statehouses and governors' mansions nationwide. With President Obama vulnerable, this raised hopes that in 2012, they could put a conviction conservative in the White House.

Though many on the Right were looking for a dream candidate in the mold of new stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., with less than two weeks before Iowa, they're stuck with a group of presidential candidates who are retreads from a different era, insufficiently conservative or implausible.

Though there are a number of reasons for this, the simplest explanation is that it's a legacy of the Bush era. George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative" who believed in using government to promote social good.

Driven by this underlying philosophy, the size and scope of government exploded during Bush's presidency. As his failures mounted, and there was a backlash against his management of the Iraq War, Republicans got battered.

Though Bush inherited a GOP-controlled Congress in 2001, eight years later his party had lost the presidency as well as both chambers of Congress -- and the Senate soon became filibuster-proof for Democrats.

But it also had the detrimental effect of weakening the bench of potential conservative presidential candidates. Between 2001 and 2009, Republicans who were in the typical grooming positions for the presidency got coaxed into supporting Bush's big government policies -- all of which makes them less appealing to today's Tea Party electorate.

Other potential presidential candidates (such as former U.S. Senator and Governor George Allen of Virginia) were defeated in the Democratic wave elections of 2006 and 2008, while few fresh Republicans were elected in those years.

Rick Santorum is the perfect example of the damage inflicted by Bush era Republicanism. The former Pennsylvania senator has often reminded the audience during this year's presidential debates that he was elected (in 1994) and re-elected (in 2000) in a blue state as a conservative.

He notes that he was an early proponent of Social Security personal accounts and instrumental in getting welfare reform through the Senate -- passing it three times because President Clinton vetoed it the first two. This is all true.

But it's his time as a loyal soldier during the Bush years that's causing him the most problems in his presidential bid. Under Bush, Santorum voted for the Medicare prescription drug plan, No Child Left Behind and a bloated highway bill among other big government initiatives.

He endorsed liberal Republican Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 GOP Senate primary in Pennsylvania. And, as the third-ranking Senate Republican, he became the party's liaison to K Street, holding regular meetings with Washington lobbyists.

He came under fire for those meetings when he ran re-election in 2006 -- a race he lost by 18 points. And that trouncing has been the biggest barrier to him gaining ground in the presidential race.

Earlier this year, I asked Santorum why he didn't push smaller government principles more aggressively during the Bush era, and he told me: "I could only go so far because we didn't have a Tea Party movement that was moving the country in that direction."

It wasn't until 2009 and 2010 that candidates who represented the post-bank bailout, purified GOP, began getting elected. And because it takes time for politicians to mature into credible presidential candidates, none of them were ready to run in 2012.

So the root of the frustration that many conservatives are feeling right now is that philosophically, they are a several election cycles ahead of the available pool of GOP presidential candidates. And they have Bush to blame for that.

Philip Klein is senior editorial writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at pklein@washingtonexaminer.com.

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