Jeb Bush's terrifying W. strategy: How he's sucking up to extremist billionaires—with the help of the worst president ever

Jeb recently said he goes to his brother for Israel advice. That should scare you for a billion different reasons

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 8, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Larry Downing)
(Reuters/Larry Downing)

With these thirteen simple words GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush struck terror into the entire world yesterday. He said,

"If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him."

To whom was he referring? As hard as it is to believe, he was talking about his brother, George W. Bush.

Now it's true that the question referred to Israel and the Middle East specifically, but it doesn't really matter. There isn't any area of policy or interest in which it would be smart to make such an admission. After all, it was during George W. Bush's tenure that we had the nation's most catastrophic terrorist attack, that we made the most notorious foreign policy blunder in American history, and that we suffered the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Indeed, when you look at it that way, you have to give Jeb points for chutzpah, for daring to run at all. It's only been 7 years since his brother left office with a 34 percent approval rating --- which was actually quite an improvement from where he'd been mired for his final year in office. But for Jeb to actually suggest that he would listen to his brother or ask him for advice seems rather reckless.

It must be noted that Bush II's ratings improved substantially once he retired from public view and has limited his appearances to self-portraits of himself in the tub, and Instagrams of his cute grandkids. But even after presenting himself for seven years as the nation's slightly dotty old uncle who only shows up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he is still loathed by half the people in the country. And one assumes that when they are reminded of his actual presidency, many of them will go back to the negative column. Those weren't good times.

So why would Jeb say such a thing? Up until now he's been scrupulous to avoid it saying things like, "I love my brother but I'm my own man." He's been working overtime to create a space for himself as the Bush who won't make a hash of everything like his father and brother did. But he found himself in a bind: He foolishly named his father's former consigliere James Baker as an advisor, and all hell broke loose among certain quarters of the GOP.

You see, James Baker, like President Poppy Bush, is from an earlier iteration of the Republican Party, a time before the evangelical Christians exerted such influence and the neocon faction had taken over the foreign policy establishment. Back in the day, the "realists", especially those from Texas, were up front about who their best buds in the Middle East were, and let's just say they weren't the one who didn't pump out large amounts of bubbling crude. Baker and Bush didn't worry about all those evangelicals who are "rapturous" over Israel, and they didn't see Israel as having interests that superseded their own, as many right-wingers do today.

Poppy, in fact, was often openly contemptuous of what he called "the Jewish lobby," and Baker even more so: He once famously said, "Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway." (They didn't and they don't, but that's where the evangelical Christians come in.) As Secretary of State, Baker made no bones about his challenges in dealing with Israel. In 1991, he appeared before Congress and said something that would be unimaginable coming from a Republican today:

"Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive. I don't think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace."

That's what caused the right-wingers of both the social conservative and neo-conservative types to have a fit when Jeb mentioned that he still talked to those of Baker's ilk. Those are fighting words in today's GOP.

In fact, brother George wasn't entirely trusted by many of the neocons in the beginning, either. During the 2000 campaign his outreach to the Jewish community was felt by many to be tepid, and his talk of a "humble foreign policy" sounded very much like he was going to follow in his father's footsteps. Leading neocons like William Kristol backed his rival John McCain, whom they knew had never met a war he didn't want to fight, and would likely be easily talked into "finishing the job" in Iraq. But as we know, "W" rose to the occasion beyond the neocons' wildest dreams.

But Jeb's problem really isn't about placating Bill Kristol and the boys. After all, Jeb's an O.G. neocon going all the way back to the '90s. There's no need to prove his pro-Israel bona fides to these guys. He was there when it counted. So what's this really all about?

Well, it's about winning the donor primary. According to the National Review, after James Baker recently made a speech mildly criticizing the Israeli Prime Minister, megabucks donor Sheldon Adelson had a fit:

Adelson sent word to Bush’s camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as “rips***”; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor “a lot of money.”

The tension between Bush and Adelson doesn’t mean the candidate won’t have a chance to raise money from the rest of the pro-Israel crowd. Bush did not attend this year’s RJC [Republican Jewish Coalition] leadership meeting, last weekend in Las Vegas, but several of his allies, including Mel Sembler, a top Florida bundler, and Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based fundraiser, were there. His son Jeb Bush Jr. was also in attendance, and his brother George W. Bush delivered the keynote address. Aides to the former Florida governor handed out buttons with “Jeb” emblazoned in Hebrew.

Bush's recent comment about listening to Junior's advice on Israel was made to another group of potential big money donors, some of whom presumably had some of the same concerns as Adelson.

Considering how unpopular his brother remains with the public, it's a testament to just how important winning the donor primary is that he would evoke his name in any gathering other than George or Barbara's birthday parties. But that's probably better than passing out the PNAC manifesto he signed back in 1998. After all, he still has to get enough votes from the American public to win the election. And it's not going to be easy to get a majority in 2016 to vote for someone who agitated for a major catastrophe along the lines of Pearl Harbor in order that the US could carry out his megalomaniacal vision to run the world. It's not a good look for any candidate but for a Bush it's lethal. This is a very tough line for him to walk.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Elections 2016 George W. Bush Israel Jeb Bush Sheldon Adelson