Politics & Policy

Jeb’s Malign Influence

Bush at a town hall meeting in Miami, September 1, 2015. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
His very presence in the race is damaging the GOP’s prospects.

Were an alien visitor to these United States to have picked up a newspaper this morning, he would presumably have been surprised to see which political topics were at present under discussion. There are just twelve months until the United States hosts an open presidential election — an election that will most likely determine the future of Obamacare, of the Supreme Court, and of America’s place in the world — and yet, to look across today’s buzzing media landscape is to wonder if anybody has yet noticed. On CNN, MSNBC, and Fox; in The Atlantic, the Times, and the Journal; and across talk radio, social media, and the broader political blogosphere, Americans are happily relitigating a host of fractious questions that were last debated in earnest in the fall of 2008. Among them: “Was the last Republican president responsible for the worst attack on American soil since the bombing at Pearl Harbor?”; “Should the U.S. military have been sent into Iraq or been focused instead on Afghanistan, the ‘good’ post-9/11 war?”; and “Is the current state of the Middle East the fault of local actors or of the United States?”

These are not the conversations the GOP was looking for.

The most obvious cause of these rather precipitous reconsiderations is the serial indiscipline of Donald Trump, whose routine indifference toward Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th Commandment has led him into some unusually strident rhetoric. Trump, it seems clear, sees himself as a radical outsider, and, except insofar as it serves as a vehicle for his ambition, has no great interest in the GOP’s broader future. When he stupidly hits Marco Rubio for being “too sweaty,” or suggests petulantly that Rand Paul should leave the stage, he is confirming beyond doubt what everybody knew all along: That he is no movement conservative, celestial uniter, or robust team player, but the demanding star of his own show, in which everybody else is an extra.

EDITORIAL: Trump’s Far-Fetched 9/11 Comments

That Trump has no apparent capacity for self-restraint is nobody’s fault but his own. Nevertheless, if his time in the limelight ends up damaging the Republican party’s chances next year, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Specifically, I suspect that Jeb Bush will come in for some especially pointed criticism. Going into 2016, Jeb knew full well how explosive his last name remained within American political discourse, but he jumped into the fray regardless. In so doing, he gambled that the obvious downsides of his entry would be outweighed by the benefits. Thus far, at least, that bet is not playing out well. By remaining at the center of the maelstrom — and by attracting negative attention by casting more than a few arrows of his own — Jeb has all but guaranteed that the GOP will spend at least some of this election season refighting battles that it would prefer to have brought to a quiet conclusion.

#share#Were he dominating in the polls — and, indeed, were he a fair prospect for the general election — this might not matter a great deal. But he is not. Rather, he is demonstrating neatly that while there is a seemingly endless supply of Bushes who are willing and able to run for president, the demand for their services has diminished to the vanishing point. Jeb’s particular combination of maximum baggage and minimum benefit is an unfortunate one at the best of times. With Donald Trump around, it’s lethal.

One cannot run the brother of the last Republican president and talk with a straight face about freshness and advance.

If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, the GOP will be presented with a golden opportunity to fashion a campaign built around the promise of change. Hitherto, it has been observed that this is one reason why choosing a Bush as the nominee would be a bad idea: One cannot run the brother of the last Republican president and talk with a straight face about freshness and advance — especially if one hopes to gain an advantage over an opponent who is running as swiftly as possible against pretty much all of her previously held positions. Today, I would like to add to this hypothesis and ask whether it is a problem that Bush is in the race per se.

RELATED: Jeb Bush: A Clear Choice on National Security

What good can it do the Right, I wonder, to get itself bogged down in defenses of the Iraq war?; to become embroiled in personalized debates over Middle Eastern chaos?; to hear repeated vestra culpas apropos 9/11? What benefit will conservatism derive from well-publicized spitting matches between a former president who is trying to help his brother and a new class that is trying to get away from him? How useful can it be to force younger candidates — most of whom missed the Iraq debate entirely — into the same pit as those who have already been tarnished?

#related#I bear Jeb Bush no ill will. Indeed, I must confess that I find the intense opprobrium that has been cast in his direction somewhat perplexing in nature. In another set of circumstances, he would perhaps have been exactly what America needed. But we are not in another set of circumstances; rather, we are in the midst of an election that has taken an extremely peculiar turn, and that seems set to continue to make such turns into the foreseeable future. Life isn’t fair. Events overtake plans. Perhaps the time for well-meaning lightning rods is coming quickly to a close?

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