It’s gone a bit overlooked today amid the textual analysis of particular buzzwords in Rose Garden speeches, but a key moment in last night’s debate came when George W. Bush, who apparently spends his time these days painting pictures of puppies, reappeared on the political scene at an inopportune moment for the Republican Party.

Here was the question, from an undecided voter who asks a fairly simple question about the continuity of the major political parties over the past several decades:

QUESTION: Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration.

Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?

I don’t think “I appreciate that question” has ever been said with less sincerity.

Romney had no real answer for this. That’s because the Republican Party, by and large, remains the same, as it has been since the conservative revolution that evolved from Goldwater to Reagan. His points of difference are not points of difference. He says he would drill for more oil than oilman George W. Bush. He said he would sign more free trade agreements than pro-trade George W. Bush.

Mike Konczal basically ended this debate a month or so ago, after the Republican convention. He looked at Romney’s five-point plan, the same plan Romney used as “proof” that he would take the country in a different economic direction than Bush, and found it to be exactly the same agenda that was proposed in 2008, 2006 and 2004.

So his plan focuses on domestic energy production, school choice, trade agreements, cutting spending, and reducing taxes and regulations. This must be a set of priorities reflecting our terrifying moment of mass unemployment, right? [...]

On September 2nd, 2004, George W. Bush is at the RNC, giving his speech accepting the nomination to run for a second term as President of the United States. Unemployment is 5.4 percent. A major housing bubble is kicking into high gear, and the country is debating the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the future of the War on Terror. A few months later, people will be talking about a permanent Republican majority. What are some priorities for a second George W. Bush term in creating jobs?

To create more jobs in America, America must be the best place in the world to do business.

[5] To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation and making the tax relief permanent.

[1] To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

[3] To create jobs, we will expand trade and level the playing field to sell American goods and services across the globe.

[5] And we must protect small-business owners and workers from the explosion of frivolous lawsuits that threaten jobs across our country. Another drag on our economy is the current tax code, which is a complicated mess…

[4] To be fair, there are some things my opponent is for. He’s proposed more than $2 trillion in new federal spending so far, and that’s a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts.

None of this is very surprising. The bullet-point agenda from Romney is the same bullet-point agenda Bush ran on in 2004. That doesn’t mean Bush adhered to it, and of course it also doesn’t mean Romney will. But the Republican idea factory spits out the same old focus-grouped agenda items every time, and their candidates promote them.

A couple other points. On foreign policy, practically every single top Romney strategist is a neoconservative veteran of the Bush White House, from Dan Senor to Elliot Abrams to John Bolton. No mystery there. And finally, here’s Barack Obama:

OBAMA: But the last point I want to make is this. You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.

George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. And I think that’s a mistake. That’s not how we’re going to move our economy forward.

When you get to call your opponent more extreme than George W. Bush, you usually win the debate, given Bush’s relative popularity.

Why didn’t Romney have such a good answer for this fairly obvious question? Two reasons. One, as noted, there’s no real differentiation. Two, I think the Romney team was seduced into thinking that George W. Bush no longer existed in an electoral context. He was President only four years ago, but conservatives did yeoman work in disappearing him and calling foul any time his name gets brought up. The fact that an undecided voter immediately asked Romney to describe differences between he and Bush shows how he actually has not faded from the minds of voters, in all likelihood, and how Bush remains toxic politically.