Jeb Bush cannot escape his brother's undeniably disastrous presidency
The GOP front-runner for 2016 has a lot of baggage to unload
Earlier this year, Mitt Romney had a Galadriel moment. He appeared to be briefly seized by a vision of himself as an all-powerful, world-striding President Romney, before turning away from temptation and settling for the plain old Mitt Romney he has always been. It was political theater at its most bizarre, a flack-driven frenzy that doubled as a flashback to the self-delusion that blinded the Romney 2012 campaign in its final days.
With Romney now out of the way, Jeb Bush has consolidated the support of the GOP's moneyed class with surprising alacrity. As Politico noted last week, the contest for the Republican nomination was previously seen as a "free-for-all among a half-dozen or so viable candidates" but has since shifted to a game of catch-up, with a clear leader way out front who has a "bull's-eye on his back." He may soon be out of sight: The Washington Post reported that Bush is amassing so much money so quickly that his potential rivals "do not even claim they can compete at his level."
The Republican primary process is a fearsome thing for any establishment candidate, but history shows that he (and it is always a he) will win in the end. None of this is good news for Bush's would-be competitors, whether they be on the fringe (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz), slow starting out of the gates (Chris Christie), or Pawlenty-esque (Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal).
The problem for the GOP is that a Bush running in 2016 is almost as eye-rubbingly bizarre as another Romney campaign.
I'm not talking about Jeb Bush's policies or his abilities as a campaigner (though for the most part he has been deft in avoiding the usual pitfalls and has handled the media well). I'm talking about his most glaring drawback: the fact that he's a Bush. It seems too obvious to mention, but as Republican elites rally around his flag, it appears they need a reminder. Just a few years ago, the idea of another Bush running for president would have been laughable. Today, the party is so desperate for a winner that it is willing to entirely overlook eight disastrous years in the White House.
In early February, Jeb Bush said his brother was a "great president." Maybe that's just what a younger brother has to say to avoid seeming like a heartless backstabber. Then again: Really?
George W. Bush's Iraq War was a horrible blunder — the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. There was a brief moment at the dawn of the Arab Spring when conservatives were crediting Bush's pro-democracy agenda for a wave of anti-authoritarian protests across the region, but you don't hear them saying that anymore. Iraq was a really, really bad idea, and nothing has changed that.
Then there's the economy. There are not many modern presidents who enjoy the dubious honor of overseeing a recession so bad that it compares only to the Great Depression. In fact, there is only one: George W. Bush. While it would be unfair to lay the entire economic collapse at his feet, it's clear that the financial crisis stemmed from a stew of GOP policies, from deregulation to crony capitalism to overly prizing homeownership. Again, not great. Not even good.
Next up: the budget. Bush entered office with a budget surplus, then gave a huge chunk of it away to the rich. That's not good. That's very, very bad.
Then there's all the rest of it: Katrina, Scooter Libby, torture, wiretapping, Dick Cheney, and on and on and on.
George W. Bush's approval rating has improved since its 2008 nadir, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it will plummet once the Bush years are relitigated in the context of a hypercompetitive presidential race in which another Bush is on the ballot.
To win a general election, Jeb Bush would have to come up with a way to disown his brother's legacy — and so far he has only embraced it. That means that, should Hillary Clinton be the Democratic nominee, the 2016 election could very well come down to a contest between the 1990s and the 2000s.
Americans have fond memories of the 1990s. The 2000s? Not so much.