It’s increasingly clear that the most lasting echo of the Reagan administration is the Bushes.
Richard Allen among others have written that the first choice of Ronald Reagan, Gerard Ford, had overplayed his hand. After demand for cabinet appointments and talk of a “co-presidency,” including publicly to Walter Cronkite, Reagan averred and picked someone from the Nixon-Ford camp instead. Bush had finished a distant second in the primaries of course, and was a natural possibility but the need could have just as easily been filled by among others former Treasury Secretary William Simon or Howard Baker.
Ed Rollins wrote in 1996 about his confrontations with the then-Vice President Bush in his self-serving but unflinching memoir Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms. They first confronted each other when the latter, Reagan’s 1984 manager, was running the National Republican Campaign Committee. Rollins later urged candidates to distance themselves from Bush after the latter infamously broke his “no new taxes” pledge of the 1988 convention.
Rollins felt Bush was an arbitrary, lucky success, a son of an unremarkable Senator whose rise to the presidency came only from the Reagan choice. It is hard to see how the sons of a 1980 runner-up not chosen for veep who is a former UN Ambassador could so dominate the landscape. (One could speculate on a very plausible alternative history for Bush fils in the political life of Bill Simon, Jr.)
Nevertheless, a Bush has been on the ticket six times of the nine times since 1980. For that matter, from 1952 to 2004 there was only one national ticket (1964) without a Nixon, Dole, or Bush on it. After a two-cycle break from a Bush on the ticket, though very much in the family shadow, should Republicans go back to Jeb, or as the campaign self-styles, Jeb!?
The history of campaigns that need exclamation points is not promising:
But there is much to like about Jeb Bush. He was by all accounts an effective and by most accounts conscientious governor of a large state. Malpractice and education reform, holding the line on spending, etc. The aversion of the far right wing to someone who stood so militantly behind Terry Schiavo must be a head scratcher for him. If the last name were just Ellis, he would be a very viable and appealing candidate. I put a pretty high premium on actually achieving goals in practice not just getting convention planks right – Rudy Giuliani probably deserved a better shot at the GOP nod in 2000 for example.
The concern with a legacy candidate is not that they’re entitled to an office, it’s that they don’t really want it. Bush said in the first debate the bar was higher for him, and it is. On balance having one’s ego tempered by the notion there is a family responsibility may be a good thing in a republic. In turn, they shuffle forward out of a sense of obligation. Once in office, that can warp thinking in odd ways, but mostly you get caught in the past. The son tries to finish a job the father started whether that’s re-shaping the Middle East or California transportation infrastructure.
Jeb so far gives off this vibe. Loudly. Shuffling forward towards the presidency despite there being no shortage of perfectly moderate current or ex-governors to fill his shoes? The gaffes to date or malapropisms seem to be universally from a lack of preparation. Can you really not be prepared to answer every possible angle about the Iraq war – something that even if you were only answering for the administration of your father you should be ready for? Or does the advice and fund-raising scaffolding inherited from your brother and father make that impossible? If you are prepared, can do you anything other than embrace the war? According to Politico tonight, Bush will go on the attack, saying that Obama and Clinton lost a war. Maybe this is true. But if the 2016 election is about the situation in Iraq the GOP will lose huge.
Despite being out of politics for nearly a decade, and very weak out of the gate, the money pours in for Jeb. Republican ranks are somberly told, get on board, the consensus is in. Another “moderate” in the Nixon/Ford/Bush mold is here to take the mantle. His principal concern will be getting along with Washington and feeling passionate only really about capital gains tax rates. Perhaps this is just the doldrums of spring training and Jeb can peak late when it counts. At best there is atonement for, not repetition of, pledge breaks. That takes a big leap of imagination. Instead, the Republican voter, after waiting through eight years of Obama looking for the big nominee package under the Christmas Tree, opens it up and finds…a sweater. Just like one it got four years ago, and most of the last sixty years.
You can feel the inevitable grind in advance for how Bush could win. 4% GDP growth isn’t exactly a ringing catch phrase. First, the attack campaign, especially were he to lose New Hampshire. Protestations of conservative – and Christian – faith to keep the South Carolina “firewall” at a good temperature. Whatever negative whispering needs to be done happens from Bush partisans and push polls, while Jeb himself stays above the fray. A tsunami of money to stimulate the poll-perfected messaging by state as the primaries and (especially) caucuses go broader. A cavalcade of ex Cabinet member endorsements to buttress the credentials, make the presidential vibe vibrant. Hopeful talk about Jeb’s ability to win the Hispanic vote (he speaks Spanish! Married a Mexican! The campaign signs with an upside down exclamation point before Jeb’s name start coming out in Nevada and Arizona rallies, where polling had been looking bad…) stimulates a pragmatic yearning in the lingering Walker or Christie support. Too many conservative candidates, some in just to keep the future book deals and Fox contracts in the air, divide the remaining vote.
As the delegate count creeps up, the equivocations and “move to the center” begins. What enthusiasm had been forcibly stoked, already begins to atrophy.
He gets the nomination and has several debates against Hillary. He wins them…maybe decisively…just as Mitt did over Barack, not used to being questioned outside of his cocoon of admirers and supplicants. But after the day-after punditry, no one cares. The onrush of history is here…the first. woman. president. The anemic me-tooism of the Susan Martinez VP pick doesn’t stop the tide. The media holds their nose for the cause which isn’t just a female president but cementing socialized medicine and whatever other twenty executive actions Obama takes between now and then. The endless recitations of any deal Lehman Brothers ever even pitched: who was more responsible for the collapse of 2008-9? Jeb or his brother? Bush is told by the plurality of Republican governors that the get out the vote operation is under control and, yeah, things are looking good you can win Michigan, put some resources up here! There will be many post-mortems on why those numbers just didn’t quite pan out…all those numbers still really trusted the big TV buys that worked in 1988, when people still watched TV.
And a woman who should be sentenced by a federal court for violating basic responsibilities of a Secretary of State is appointing the judges.
So the base looks elsewhere. Why does the Trump virus continue to thrive after endless flubs that would have ended other mortals’ campaigns? It’s not immigration, viable that issue may be. He is the anti-Bush, a repetition of Perot even more farcical this time around. Trump’s a one man typhoon beholden to no one, no history, no decorum, in a sense, no…politics. Bush is all of that, for good or bad, and bound by it. But voters are told, here is your sweater. The Republicans want someone who can transcend it – “another Reagan” – but if they can’t, then burn the whole damn place down. What have the victories of 2010 or 2014 subsumed by the establishment gotten us? As long as the host organism is in the race so too will likely be Trump.
The draw of a political family brand name can peter out, the window can close. Ask Charles or Henry Adams. Did Jeb miss his? In the Republicans’ most sweeping off-presidential cycle year, 1994, when George W. Bush became governor of Texas, Jeb narrowly lost to Lawton Chiles to be the governor of Florida. It seems like had that race been won it would have been him as the nominee in 2000. Does that still haunt him? This would be a really bad year for the Bush brand to flame out. Four Supreme Court justices will be over 80 in the next term.
If not Jeb Bush, who? The establishment smirks. I’ll speculate on that in another post.