Politics & Policy

Jeb Bush: The Wrong Name at the Wrong Time

(Andy Jacobson/Getty)
He’s not the candidate Republicans need for 2016.

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 for me: Well, I must confess that I am not entirely sure what I think of Bush’s record. But, then, I don’t really need to be. Rather, I am fundamentally opposed to his candidacy on more basic grounds: Namely, that he’s the wrong man, at the wrong time — and in the wrong country, too. “As loathsome and un-American as it may seem to hold someone’s family name against him,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote earlier this week, “this point needs to be emphasized: the GOP and the country don’t need another Bush.” Dougherty is right. The United States is a republic, and in republics the citizenry should be reflexively nervous about dynasties, regardless of how much they like their individual members. Certainly, America has survived the emergence of great and powerful families before. President John Quincy Adams was President John Adams’s son; President Benjamin Harrison was President William Henry Harrison’s grandson; and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin. But these were departures from the norm, rather than the norm itself. If Jeb Bush does manage to make it all the way to the top, we will be in uncharted dynastic territory — territory that, frankly, should begin to worry us.

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?

As the days roll on, I am increasingly of the view that if Republicans are going to win the White House in 2016, their candidate will have to run as an insurgent. In my ideal world, the GOP’s choice would present himself to the public as a breath of fresh air after the fractious and moribund Obama years; he would cast his philosophy as an alternative to a progressivism that is intellectually exhausted, unbearably arrogant, and increasingly frivolous; and, as far as is humanly possible, he would sell himself to swing voters as the rightful torch-bearer of dynamism itself. Without being too obvious about it, then, the Republicans’ candidate will need to advertise his youth, and to contrast it with his opponent’s wear and tear; he will need to make it clear that, in government at least, the Left has no monopoly on women and minorities, and that its ideology is marked by irreconcilable contradictions; and he will have to simultaneously cast the Obama administration and its champions as irresponsible despoilers of vital American traditions, without permitting his defense of classical liberalism to be mistaken for a defense of the status quo. In other words, he will need to be the candidate of both sober responsibility and of forward-looking change: one part ascetic fixer-upper, one part Space Age futurist, with a little Patrick Henry thrown in for good measure.

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.


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