Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign is having a bit of trouble. Donald Trump is still riding high, Marco Rubio is surging in the polls, and Ben Carson is winning conservative hearts and minds with his frequent Hitler analogies, but Jeb is slowly and steadily fading away. He’s tried being the (relatively) moderate candidate whose primary strengths are experience, “electability,” and the blessing of the party establishment, but for the time being Republican voters seem more inclined to support candidates who have “new ideas” and/or are untethered to reality. He’s struggling to force conservatives to like him, and apparently the problem has gotten so bad that he’s considering putting his brother out the trail to start reminding conservatives of why they love people named Bush.
As the New York Times reports this morning, Jeb’s campaign is trying to figure out a strategy for deploying George W. Bush as a campaign surrogate in South Carolina. Jeb’s brother, for all his failures, remains a beloved figure on the right, which has largely convinced itself that all the economic and foreign policy wreckage he left behind can be blamed on Barack Obama. Getting him back out there, the thinking goes, will impel conservatives to fondly remember the good old days of wildly regressive tax cuts and ill-conceived wars of conquest. But, as the Times notes, putting one of the two former presidents in his immediate family out on the trail “could also underscore the impression that Jeb is simply a legacy candidate at a time when voters are itching for change.”
It’s quite the dilemma! But there’s at least one person who thinks it’s an awful idea to put George W. Bush on the stump for Jeb: George W. Bush. Here’s what W. reportedly told attendees at a fundraiser this past April:
At one point, according to more than a half-dozen guests leaving the ballroom and one attendee who transcribed remarks during the event, [George W.] Bush was asked a winking question about the qualities he sought in a president. But instead of aggressively boosting his brother, whom he described as capable, Mr. Bush acknowledged being a liability to his brother’s candidacy, noting that it was easy for his rivals to say in debates that we don’t need another Bush.
“He essentially said people don’t want dynasties in America,” recalled Elise Weingarten, another attendee. (The event, held behind closed doors, was off the record, with a “not notes” rule announced at the beginning.)
According to other attendees, Mr. Bush expressed a reluctance to enter the campaign fray, because it would be unhelpful to his brother, but also unseemly. “That’s why you won’t see me,” he said.
It’s probably safe to assume that Jeb wouldn’t even be contemplating a cameo from his brother if his poll numbers were a bit stronger. But as for the pluses and minuses, I think they’re all oversold. Jeb’s surname and family history have been a campaign issue for months now, largely through his own deliberate choices or bumbling gaffes. Jeb has defended his brother’s war in Iraq, name-checked his brother as one of his foreign policy advisers, and ham-fistedly defended the George W. Bush record on terrorism. His national security team is stuffed with Bush White House veterans. Bush 44 has already played a huge role in the Jeb campaign and people are already talking about the “dynasty” drag on his chances, so putting him out on the stump likely couldn’t do more damage than has already been done.
That said, I’m also not sure why a conservative would necessarily rally to Jeb if they’re yearning for a resurgence of the Bush years. The entire GOP 2016 field is populated with candidates who are proposing grossly regressive tax cuts that will allegedly pay for themselves and promising deepened U.S. military commitments in the Middle East with an eye on regime change. If you’re looking for the Bush agenda in 2016, you’re not lacking for options. But of all the candidates, Jeb is the most vulnerable to the political toxicity of the name attached to that agenda. If you can get Bush-like results without having to vote Bush, why wouldn’t you?