Isn't it strange how George W. Bush has somehow become a reassuring presence?
Our memories of Bush predate the acrimony over ObamaCare. He predates the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. He predates "I am not a witch." He predates Romney's 47 percent, the Benghazi scandal, and Russia's annexation of a part of Ukraine. "W" is a man who has said nothing about the Syrian Civil War.
Now that Bush has come in earnest to help his brother campaign for the Republican 2016 nomination in South Carolina, the former president has become a reminder of a Republican Party that had a working internal motor and a direction in American life. Somehow, seeing him reminded even a Bush-hater like me of a time before the pressing and confusing present.
But the problem for Jeb Bush, and the whole Republican Party, is that George W. Bush led the GOP into a ditch. Think of George W. Bush's presidency. Is there anything that makes you long for a re-run?
Bush's administration led to the electoral "thumping" of 2006, when a seemingly impregnable post-1994 Republican House majority was surrendered, bequeathing to the nation a Democratic majority through which President Obama could pass his health reform bill. Even with an impressive post-presidential approval rating in South Carolina, there is no evidence that George W. Bush's presence is helping his brother collect new support.
Of the candidates in the Republican field right now, only Donald Trump is willing to shove "W" back into the ditch again. The rest want to embrace him, and they do so at their peril.
After goading Jeb Bush by saying he was ashamed of his last name, Trump promised to make Jeb pay a steeper price for owning that name and bringing his brother along for the ride. "The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake." Trump said in the last debate. "They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction and there were none. And they knew there were none."
As a matter of history, this is not quite true. The Bush administration didn't deliberately lie, but they did consciously hype the intelligence that confirmed their own pro-regime change biases. They told untruths with enthusiasm, and they used these untruths as part of their overall argument for war. And the war really was a disaster. The power vacuum left behind led to the rise of ISIS, and the demotic movements it unleashed in the Middle East have, over and over again, turned into disasters for U.S. foreign policy. So yes, Trump's anti-Bush comments crossed a line, but they were in the right direction: away from Bushism.
And oddly enough, instead of letting Jeb carry the anchor of his brother's administration in that debate, Rubio stupidly volunteered to do it for him. "I just want to say, at least on behalf of me and my family, I thank God all the time that it was George W. Bush in the White House on 9/11 and not Al Gore," said Rubio. This got a wildly enthusiastic response from the partisan Republicans in the hall. What did everyone else in the country think?
Jeb also tried to avoid any substantive confrontation on his brother's record, by claiming that it was unsporting of Trump to attack his family members. Does the public like the kind of cronyism that forbids us to judge the last Bush presidency merely because that family has threatened us with another one? Is this what the Republican Party wants to sell during its primary as it prepares to face a Clinton? I doubt it.
George W. Bush's legacy for the Republican Party is one of disillusionment and failure, followed by costly face-saving operations. That goes for foreign policy and economic policy generally. The bailouts and the surge fit perfectly into the Boomer pattern of expensive, unprincipled attempts at cleaning up the mess they made with their high ambitions. The country is growing too tired and too broke to tolerate many more of these.
To mount a winning campaign, Jeb Bush needed to show that he learned from his brother's mistakes and would not repeat them. Similarly, the eventual Republican nominee will have to not just run against Hillary Clinton, but against George W. Bush too. But Jeb and Rubio have allowed Trump to goad them into running with him.
George W. is charming, affable, and friendly. And he is leading the GOP off another cliff.