WASHINGTON - Taunted by Republicans to declare war on "radical Islamic terrorism," Democrats are turning to an unlikely ally: George W. Bush.
President Obama, under pressure to be more aggressive on terrorism, regularly cites his predecessor's refusal to demonize Muslims or play into the notion of a clash between Islam and the West. It's a striking endorsement from a president whose political rise was predicated on opposition to the Iraq war and Bush's hawkish approach in the Middle East.
As Hillary Clinton put it, "George W. Bush was right."
Laying out a plan to fight domestic terrorism, Clinton reminded voters in Minneapolis this month of Bush's visit to a Muslim center six days after the 9/11 attacks. She quoted his words from that day about those who intimidate Muslim Americans: "They represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior."
Bush, of course, was not referring to the 2016 Republican presidential field. Clinton certainly was.
Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. - then enjoyed a bump in the polls. Ben Carson deems traditional Muslims unfit for the presidency. Marco Rubio warns of a "civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam," making a distinction, at least, between ordinary Muslims and extremists. Ted Cruz berates Clinton and Obama incessantly for refusing to declare war on "radical Islamic terrorism."
Clinton and Obama argue that rhetoric just helps the Islamic State and like-minded extremists, whose recruitment pitch is based on the narrative of an apocalyptic battle between Islam and the West. The Democrats warned that proposals like Trump's Muslim ban jeopardize national security, drawing a contrast with Bush.
"I was very proud after 9/11 when he was adamant and clear about the fact that this is not a war on Islam," Obama said recently. His message to today's Republican leaders: "They should follow his example. It was the right one. It was the right impulse."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's top challenger for the Democratic nomination, visited a mosque this month in a show of solidarity that evoked Bush's after 9/11.
All of that marks a departure for a party that has spent the last decade slamming the former president.
Not all Republican candidates have been as harsh about Muslims as Trump has been. Jeb Bush has joined his GOP challengers in describing the enemy as "radical Islamic terrorism." But he also has said the U.S. should follow his brother's lead, arguing in the last GOP debate that "we can't dissociate ourselves from peace-loving Muslims."
During the 2001 mosque visit, one of several occasions Bush denounced anti-Muslim bias, he stood alongside Muslim leaders and quoted the Quran about evil-doers being ultimately defeated. He insisted that intimidation against Muslims in America would not stand.
"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," Bush said.
The former president has stayed mostly silent on the recent debate. His spokesman, Freddy Ford, said Bush wouldn't comment on "Trump's bluster" but repeated that "true Islam is peaceful." Ford declined to discuss what Bush thinks of Democrats' quoting him.