Bill Clinton left the White House in January 2001, and in the 2004 race, Democratic candidates were tripping over each other to connect themselves to the nation’s 42nd president. I remember one September 2003 debate in which literally every Dem running for the party’s nomination said they’re the rightful heir to the Clinton legacy.

Al Sharpton, after a while, apparently couldn’t take it anymore. “I know that within the next hour we’ll say that Bill Clinton walked on water,” he joked.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, left the White House in January 2009, and in the 2012 race, Republican candidates prefer to pretend the nation’s 43rd president doesn’t exist.

While the candidates routinely lionize Ronald Reagan and blame President Barack Obama for the nation’s economic woes, none has been eager to embrace the Bush legacy of gaping budget deficits, two wars and record low approval ratings — or blame him for the country’s troubles either.

“Republicans talk a lot about losing their way during the last decade, and when they do they’re talking about the Bush years,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College. “For Republicans, the Bush administration has become the ‘yadda yadda yadda’ period of American history.”

The eight-year Bush presidency has merited no more than a fleeting reference in televised debates and interviews…. The former president himself has been all but invisible since leaving office in 2009 with a Gallup approval rating of just 34 percent. […]

In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the weak economy, government spending and the $15 trillion federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which Bush administration policies contributed to those problems.

This isn’t surprising, of course. I don’t imagine many would-be GOP presidents were eager to bring up Hoover in the 1936 election, either.

But the challenge for Democrats is to not let this stand. Not only is Bush responsible for nearly all of the messes Obama is trying to clean up, but nearly all of the Republican candidates are eager to bring return to Bush-era policies — only this time, they’ll be even more right wing.

It would seem, then, that the tack for Obama’s re-election campaign is pretty obvious: “A vote for Romney is a vote for the Bush policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Let’s not go backwards.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.