Politically, Bushes are, like the value of the Ivy League degrees most of them have, vastly overrated. Jeb Bush, who recently, to the surprise of no one, all but announced he would run for president, is no exception.
Ever since Jeb established an “I’m Thinking About Running for President Committee” (translation to English: I’m running for president) a week or so back, the conventional wisdom, whooped up by the chatterati and the various great mentioners, is that this latest Bush is a lock for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. They also say he’s that party’s best hope for reclaiming 1600. He’s probably neither.
The man who would be Bush III was governor of Florida from January of 1999 to January of 2007. He was a competent, hands-on executive who did many things conservatives find simpatico. With the help of a Republican legislature, he cut taxes to the tune of about $20 billion over his two terms. He helped install higher standards in K-12 education and expanded educational choice. During the eight hurricanes that struck Florida during Bush’s governorship, he orchestrated competent and helpful responses on the part of the state’s emergency agencies.
For all these accomplishments, Jeb Bush left office with high approval ratings. And is still well thought of by a significant fraction of Floridians. So far so good. For a guy who would like to be president, it does no harm to have a successful executive record in what was then the fourth largest state in the nation, now third, and a fair chance of winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes. (In the last two presidential cycles Florida went narrowly to Caesar Obamus.)
But hang on, Jeb Bush also carries considerable political baggage, and is not liked by a fair chunk of the Republican base. The charges and specifications:
Many conservatives don’t trust Bush on immigration. There’s no reason for them to. Bush favors the “comprehensive” approach to immigration that would almost certainly give incentive for millions more low-skill, no-skill folks from south of the border to come to El Norte, where there will be no jobs for them but plenty of expensive government services, and hundreds of Democratic supervisors of elections eager to squeeze these new undocumented Democrats into voting booths. There is nothing in Jeb Bush’s actions and public remarks on immigration which would lead anyone to believe that as president he would be serious about sealing the country’s southern border or obliging those who are here illegally to return to their home countries. In Republican primaries, this is a vote loser.
It’s not a bad thing to be interested in K-12 education and its improvement. God knows it could use some. But Jeb Bush is obsessed with it. He goes on about it incessantly, giving speeches at educational symposia, conferences, and work-shops where much energy is expended, much time wasted, and expense accounts abused. But little or nothing is accomplished at these séances that would lead to a single school kid learning any more than he otherwise would have had the symposia, conferences, etc. never been held. Bush even established a nonprofit foundation, Excellence in Education, which fronts even more of this kind of wasted effort, including whooping up Common Core, another item that puts Bush crosswise with much of the conservative Republican base.
Apart from whether any of Jeb Bush’s ideas on education are good or bad, the lament among conservatives is that Jeb, like his brother before him, doesn’t recognize that education is, or at least should be, a state and local responsibility. I was on hand at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August of 2012 when Jeb had a prime-time opportunity to educate voters on how we could get America’s economy moving again, and stop the absolute lust for international American weakness on the part of our failed president, by electing Mitt Romney. What we got was an interminable, eye-glazing speech on education policy. (With people in the hall nodding off right and left during this snoozer, I wished I had the NoDoz concession for the night.)
At least in the case of W, one got the impression, fair or not, that he nattered on about education so much in his campaigns because political consultants told him that just mentioning education in speeches is worth a certain number of votes. Heck, W talked so much about education in his 2000 campaign I thought for a while he was running for the office of National Schoolmarm. Even with his minimal interest and expertise we got No Child Left Behind. (Anyone want to defend this turkey?) What would we get, conservatives rightly worry, through the butinsky agency of the federal Department of Education, with a President Jeb Bush at 1600?
Then there’s the establishment candidate business. Bush fans pooh-pooh this one, but it’s important, and will likely cost our Jeb votes both in the Republican primaries and in the general, should he be so lucky as to get there. In his life before and after his terms as governor, Bush was active and successful in the worlds of big business, big finance, big real estate, big banking, big political fundraising. He has even dabbled in private equity and offshore investments, activities the Democrats and the mainstream media hammered Mitt Romney for in 2012. OK, they did it dishonestly, sometimes incoherently, but it cost Romney votes.
On the merits, there’s probably nothing wrong with the way Jeb Bush has earned his considerable living. Successful entrepreneurship is, after all, one of the great dreams and opportunities America provides. But many voters, including the hard-working middle-class, increasingly the heart of the Republican Party, don’t understand these worlds. If one stood in a shopping mall concourse interviewing shoppers, it might take several days to find someone who knows what a hedge fund is (hint: it has nothing to do with horticulture).
Fair or not, Bush’s overall résumé probably won’t help him. Many conservative voters will see Bush as worse than just a country club Republican. Heck, he and his pals own the damn country club. In order to accomplish what the country needs, the next president will have to engage and discomfit some very entrenched interests. These include many of the Bush family’s boardroom buddies and their K Street enforcers. Is Jeb the guy to do this, many Republican voters will ask? With his early start, Bush has plenty of time to convince skeptical voters that he’s the one. But he has a hill to climb.
Finally, there’s the issue of the name. Jeb Jones with the same résumé would have a much easier time of it than Jeb Bush. There’s an unknown but possibly crippling number of voters who simply won’t vote for yet another Bush. Period. Paragraph. And Republicans can’t count on running the table in 2016 like they did in 2014. All the flakes will be at large and voting in a presidential year. So if Republicans want to win back the White House, they can’t afford to spot the other side any points. Which is exactly what they would be doing by putting a Bush on the ballot. And Jeb on the ticket nullifies the legacy issue. How can Republicans complain about the Democrats putting up another Clinton when they’ve put up yet another Bush?
When the other Republican candidates make their cases, and there seems to be a reinforced platoon of them, many will also be shown to have baggage. But in the case of Jeb we know up front what his disadvantages are.
And surely no one seriously believes, as many establishment figures have been claiming, that Bush leads the Republican field now. No one leads the field now, unless you count “undecided” as a candidate. It’s way too early for polls to be measuring anything beyond name recognition. Bush may indeed be the leading choice in recent polls, but usually with between 10 and 15 percent support. Hardly a tsunami, especially when you consider that anyone who doesn’t recognize the name Bush has been living on Mars for the past 30 years.
This one has barely started. And it’s far too early to conclude that it will end with a victory party in Kennebunkport.