You should know by now that anything the Bush brothers want you to believe should be treated with extreme suspicion.
When asked what would be Jeb Bush’s biggest problem in pursuing the presidency, George W. Bush recently answered, “Me.”
W. has a point — but only when it comes to the general election. Then, never having disagreed with a president who turned a record surplus into a record deficit, lost two wars, and left America on the brink of an even Greater Depression won’t be a net advantage.
But you can, and I sure do, make an argument that if it weren’t for his last name and his association with W., Jeb would have no chance of being the Republican nominee for president.
We can say this for sure: If Jeb Bush is the Republican frontrunner, he’s the weakest Republican frontrunner in a generation, possibly even since 1964.
At Mitt Romney’s weakest points, he was still riding above Jeb’s peak support.
Jeb isn’t just less popular than you’d expect the likely nominee to be, he’s less popular than his brother, someone millions of Americans consider the worst president of their lifetime.
In a recent Bloomberg poll, George W. Bush was viewed favorably by 46 percent of Americans and unfavorably by the same number. It’s hardly impressive, given that former president Bill Clinton’s rating was 60 percent favorable with only 32 percent unfavorable. But compared to Jeb’s 32/42 favorable/unfavorable pairing, W. — whose approval dipped to 25 percent as president — is a George W. Bush Superstar.
Jeb’s numbers in an even more recent AP poll — which shows that Hillary Clinton is the most popular active politician in America, despite the press’s focus on her trustworthiness — weren’t any better at 29/36 favorable/unfavorable.
Let’s be clear: I still think that Jeb is the favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2016 for the same reasons I wrote about in February, namely conservatives’ inability to focus on a viable alternative. Already they’re vacillating between Scott Walker, who seems to have gone from pro-immigration reform to opposing legal immigration, and Marco Rubio, who has merely turned on his own immigration bill (at least until it’s a political advantage again).
But when you’re the least popular Bush in America, you have a problem. Here are five reasons Jeb Bush still looks up to his older brother.
1. He’s been out of office longer than his brother.
When Jeb Bush recently embraced a policy that had been slurred by Republicans as “death panels” during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, he revealed that he has a very different sort of amnesia than most of his fellow partisans. They all have forgotten everything that happened from 2001-2008, except when they want to blame Obama for something that happened in that time frame. For Jeb Bush, history ended in 2007 when he left office, and began again this year when he started running for the White House.
This has some definite advantages. Jeb wasn’t in office when the economy crashed in 2008 and every officeholder in America shared the blame. But he’s been largely absent from the significant debates that have defined politics since then. His critiques of Obama thus sounded parroted. The genuine bitterness he holds toward the current White House occupant — who in 6 years led our nation to job creation greater than both presidents named Bush saw in 12 — comes from the current president pointing out that our last president was pretty terrible.
2. He’s running against the base.
Mitt Romney found a way to run for office based on the premise that his one great accomplishment as governor was about to destroy America. He didn’t really abandon his health care plan, but he used twisted federalism arguments against its national implementation and completely ignored that he often called it a model for the nation.
Jeb Bush’s greatest accomplishment as governor was increasing income inequality. This would thrill many Republican primary voters, but they don’t know his early albums.
Instead, they focus on his last eight years of sucking in corporate cash — on the board of the doomed Lehman Brothers among many, many others — like a blue whale sucks in krill. And they especially despise his unabashed support for Common Core, which is controversial and wildly misunderstood education policy despised both by teachers and the far right. President Obama’s embrace of the policy has made it toxic. Conservatives call it “Obamacare for education” and Ted Cruz has vowed to repeal every word of it, though it isn’t actually a federal law.
“I love you and I love National Review,” Jeb Bush said recently at an event hosted by the non-profit conservative publication. “I just think you’re wrong on immigration, and you think I’m wrong.”
It really isn’t an issue of policy. His opponents all support some form of legalization for the 11 million undocumented after pretending to secure the border more, except Walker, who hasn’t been told what he believes yet. His brother supported a failed but comprehensive approach to immigration reform, even if he never really ran on it.
But Bush is the lone Republican who seems intent on reinforcing these differences. This is a strategy designed to help him in the general election, where his last name will be an anchor the size of Texas. But for now it’s just a way to keep conservatives skeptical.
3. Conservatives don’t know how conservative he is.
George W. Bush pursued a pre-Tea Party GOP approach to reproductive rights: Keep the debate to a minimum and slowly win by taking over the Supreme Court.
Jeb is much more in line with the current movement, which is all about nurturing divisions and maiming women’s health by closing the Planned Parenthood clinics that millions of poor Americans depend upon. He wants to defund Planned Parenthood and he claimed to be the most aggressively anti-reproductive rights governor ever. He may be right.
“As governor, Bush signed a law to create “Choose Life” license plates in Florida, the proceeds from which flow to anti-abortion advocacy organizations,” Huffington Post‘s Laura Bassett notes. “He also aggressively intervened in two high-profile cases to prevent a mentally disabled rape victim and a 13-year-old girl from being able to have abortions.”
His Supreme Court appointments would be every bit as anti-women’s rights and pro-corporate governance as his brothers. But he needs to hide this fact to have a chance to win the general election.
4. He’s too much like his brother.
The Republican establishment has refused to cleanse itself of the men and women who were and still are unapologetically wrong about Iraq. There’s a simple reason for this: They’d have no experienced defense advisors if they did.
Jeb’s team of defense advisors largely mirrors W.’s because Jeb is possibly even more of a neoconservative than his brother ever was. He signed the Project for the New American Century’s 1998 letter calling for regime change in Iraq. And he recently said he’d have no qualms about starting a “Third Bush War” in Iraq.
Even some on the right are frightened by a re-embrace of the Bush foreign policy legacy.
“What has the Iraq war gotten us?” right-wing columnist Matt Lewis recently wrote. “Thousands of dead bodies. Trillions of lost dollars. ISIS. A tarnished reputation around the globe. An Iraq on the brink of chaos. A gun-shy America. An emboldened Iran.”
Apparently it’s gotten us another Bush who thinks doing it again is a fine idea.
5. He’s not enough like his brother.
George W. Bush’s recovering poll ratings are the product of his being out of office for almost seven years and Republicans’ grudging respect for his ability to piss off liberals. When Jeb becomes the GOP nominee, his numbers will likely resemble W.’s. But by then the damage will be done.
George W. ran in 2000 by glancing toward the center, vowing to avenge his dad’s broken “Read my lips” promise by delivering a massive tax cut to the rich and overwhelming his opponents with fundraising. And he still almost lost to John McCain before losing to Al Gore.
George W.’s country affect belied his prep-school upbringing. But Jeb can’t wilt that Phillips Academy starch. Like Mitt Romney, he reminds you more of the guy who’d lay you off than a guy you’d work with.
Never doubt that the family that benefited from the Willie Horton ad, John McCain’s “black child” and the “swiftboating” of John Kerry will find some way to win if it’s at all possible. But if you want to know how weak Jeb is as a candidate, watch if George W. Bush is forced to come out and minister to conservatives on behalf of his brother during the primary, knowing those images will trail him into the general election.
That’s one dirty trick that Jeb will do his best to avoid.
Photo: Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flick