This meme pops up every couple of months or when Jeb Bush comes out of retirement to make a statement, as he did recently when Charlie Crist vetoed an education-reform bill he backed, but Bush himself doesn’t appear to want to cooperate. Politico’s Jonathan Martin keeps hearing from “leading Republicans” that the popular predecessor to Crist would make a terrific presidential candidate in 2012. But is America ready for a Bush hat trick in the Oval Office?
Talk privately to just about any leading Republican about the 2012 presidential race, and you’ll often hear a sentence that starts with: “If his last name were …”
They’re talking about the former two-term governor of one of America’s largest states who is a reformer, a policy wonk and a savvy pol who left office on good terms — and whose last name happens to be Bush.
Were he not the brother of a recently departed and unpopular president, there is little doubt that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be an obvious, and formidable, White House prospect for the GOP.
Yet even with the family baggage, many Republicans remain convinced Bush could be a strong contender.
Depends on which race we’re discussing. Jeb could make a strong run for the nomination, perhaps, but even that’s a stretch. The Republican Party has been pushed away from “compassionate conservatism,” the euphemism used by his brother for big-government centrism with a better focus on national security. Tea Parties have pushed the GOP back towards its Reaganesque federalist roots and is looking for a clean break from the Bush track record.
That may be a bit unfair to Jeb, of course, who is neither his brother or his father. He governed Florida in a conservative direction and made it work, remaining tremendously popular. But politics is not altogether fair, and branding matters, whether one likes it or not. Even if Tea Party activists could be convinced to give a Bush another try, that brand has been damaged considerably over the last few years, even with Barack Obama doing his best to make people forget George Bush’s missteps by bringing back the Jimmy Carter presidency. In a general election between Obama and another Bush, the GOP would have a hard time convincing independents and unhappy Democrats that the third time would be the charm.
One consultant who worked with Bush on his gubernatorial campaigns thinks that Jeb could rehabilitate the Bush brand the way Hillary did the Clinton brand. Unfortunately, that latter example is probably more on target than Alex Castellanos would like. Hillary’s rehabilitation of the Clinton brand was hardly a great success, having lost the Democratic nomination to an upstart first-term Senator from Illinois despite the massive political machine she inherited from her husband.
Besides, Bush himself seems mostly disinterested in pursuing elective office, preferring to remain in activist mode, primarily for education-reform issues. Jeb might be smarter than most Republicans, if that’s the case.