And they’re off! This morning, in a notably understated Facebook post, former Florida governor Jeb Bush announced that he was thinking about thinking about running for the White House. “I have decided,” Bush confirmed, “to actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States.” “Best wishes to you and your families for a happy holiday season,” he teased.” “I’ll be in touch soon.”
The reactions came thick and fast. Depending on the speaker, Bush was greeted as a glorified Democrat, hiding inside an elephant’s hide; as a colorless moderate, too insipid and too dull to provoke any reaction at all; or as precisely the sort of competent, calm, and respectable politician that Republicans will need if they are to win back control of the executive branch. Celebrating the move, Bush’s champions focused on his excellent record as a two-term governor and played up his social conservatism; lamenting the news, his detractors relitigated his approach to the disaster that is Common Core, and his unreliable position on immigration. Would Bush be a good president? Your mileage may vary.
As it stands, the Republican party has not won a presidential election without a Bush on the top of the ticket since 1984, and it has not won the presidency without a Bush somewhere on the ticket since 1972. If Jeb were elected president, it would be the case that, for three decades, one family had been in charge of the country each and every time the electorate moved in its party’s direction. What, I wonder, would that say about conservatism? And what, I wonder, would it say about America writ large if, 36 years after George H. W. was first sworn in as vice president, the Right concluded that the only way that it could credibly win power was to tap into the same, oft-pumped well?
Dynastic objections aside, it strikes me also that Jeb is almost perfectly wrong for this moment in American history. Without doubt, he is a talented, upstanding, and accomplished man, and he would probably do an admirable job if he parachuted into power. But, this being hardball democratic politics, and not the Biography Channel, there are many, many more questions for us to consider. In 2012, a weak President Obama not only managed to draw an astonishing amount of blood simply by riffing on Mitt Romney’s remarkable business career, but, with a little help from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, was able to adroitly leverage the still-tender memories of the recent financial collapse and to paint his opponent as a detached, Gilded Age demon. Presumably, Bush would get precisely the same treatment. Just a few months ago, he teamed up with a bunch of Wall Street bankers and started a private-equity fund that will specialize in oil and gas. A few years ago, moreover, he worked with Lehman Brothers until, in the heat of the 2008 financial crisis that is still largely blamed on his brother, it collapsed in ignominious disgrace. Fair or unfair, what exactly do we imagine the story will be if the next Republican candidate is not only vulnerable in this area in his own right, but has the surname “Bush” to boot?
Further, he will have to run not only against the last eight years, but against the last 16 – a considerable challenge, and one that can only be met by someone who is flexible enough to explain what the last Republican administration got wrong without alienating his supporters too badly. The brother of the last Republican president, suffice it to say, cannot do this.
It is true that some of these challenges would be mitigated if, as is expected, the Democratic party chooses Hillary Clinton as its aspirant. Certainly, in the case of a Bush-Clinton matchup, progressives will not be able to shout “retread” without the charge rebounding on their own heads. But Republicans who note this should not be kidding themselves as to Bush’s prospects writ large, for while both names are damaged, the Clinton years are remembered a great deal more fondly than are the Bush years. Should 2016 become a referendum on the question of whether 1993–2001 was a better era than 2001–2009, Clinton will win handily. Likewise, if the battle is between the “First Woman President” and the “Third Bush President,” Clinton will prevail. Yes, Hillary would neutralize some of Bush’s more toxic attributes. But the Right should not be seeking to “neutralize” Hillary; it should be seeking to vaporize Hillary. Since when exactly did successful political parties nominate weak candidates in the hope that the other team will willingly cancel out their deficiencies?
“Be in touch soon!”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.