The Once (and Future?) President Bush
No one would blame Jeb Bush for feeling that time, or his party, has passed him by.
He could have run for president 12 years ago but didn’t. Four years ago, as the U.S. was suffering from a virulent case of Bush fatigue, he wisely decided again not to run. He made the same choice this year, and sternly brushes away any speculation that he could be the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Yet whatever his political aspirations or missed opportunities, Jeb is remarkably sunny. He will always be defined, and define himself, as a son and sibling. “Anytime I talk about my brother or dad, don’t expect me to be an observer,” he told a group of reporters convened Monday in New York by Bloomberg View. “I love them.”
It fell to Jeb to shepherd his older brother George W. into the presidency in 2000. As it was, Jeb was governor of Florida, the state that decided the election. To criticism that he was too close to the situation to be neutral, he said he couldn’t have recused himself from “my constitutional duties.” Nor could he have recused himself, he said, “of being my brother’s brother.”
Jeb is also blinkered about the budget deal President George H.W. Bush made in 1990. Jeb finds it, as it was, heroic, and downplays any suggestion that it cost his father re-election. On George W., he marvels at his “unbelievable discipline,” as he watches President Barack Obama blame the sputtering economy on his predecessor. “He doesn’t have to keep bringing it up,” Jeb said. “We get it.”
To listen to Jeb Bush is to hear a man who has crossed to the other shore -- at least for now. On the question of whether he could be president, he’s philosophical. “There’s a window of opportunity in life,” he had earlier told Charlie Rose, acknowledging that 2012 “was probably my time.” On Monday he had criticism for everyone, although he undoubtedly knew that the assembled journalists would shout out only his critique of his own party.
He was right. On Tuesday, he tweeted a clarification of his remark that Ronald Reagan and his father “would have a hard time” being elected as Republicans today. “The point I was making yesterday is this: The political system today is hyperpartisan. Both sides are at fault.”
And both sides deserve some credit. Bush mentioned two favorite governors, Indiana Republican Mitch Daniels and Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper.
He said Obama could have been “transcendent,” as he promised, if he focused less on politics and more on problem-solving, such as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan: “Had he embraced something like that,” Bush said, “this election would be very different today.”
He faulted both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for their policies on immigration. “The president says, ’Oh great, we have another election cycle to use this as a wedge issue,’” Bush said. “And Republicans say, ’Border control is the only organizing principle.’” He gives Romney a grade of “Needs Improvement” because “America is a more generous country than one that would punish a 4-year-old whose parents brought him here.” Unlike most members of his party, Bush supports the Dream Act, which would give that child a path to citizenship. “I do feel a little out of step with my party on this,” he said.
Unfair as it may be, it’s hard to resist comparing Jeb with one of his party’s most prominent members: his brother, the former president.
Jeb was the Good Brother who made his fortune in business before running for office, as his father advised, and climbed the party ladder in the ultimate swing state. George was the late-blooming cut-up who found religion and renounced alcohol the morning after his 40th birthday, got rich in a sweetheart deal, and was anointed by party elders to run for governor of Texas. In 1994, Jeb lost his first campaign for governor. George won.
Jeb won in 1998, but by then George was already being mentioned for the presidency. When George outpaced his brother and announced his campaign in 1999, Barbara Bush said, “Can you believe it?”
It might be a stretch to say George couldn’t have become the 43rd president of the U.S. if Jeb hadn’t been the 43rd governor of Florida. It’s not a stretch to say that Jeb could have run this time but for George W.’s presidency. According to a CNN poll released last week, George W. Bush is the most unpopular living ex-president.
This unpopularity will fade over time as the hazy gauze that descends on most former presidents shrouds 43’s record. Obama helped that process along at the White House last week when George W., accompanied by former administration officials and 14 members of his extended family, visited for the unveiling of his portrait. “Thank you so much for inviting our rowdy friends to my hanging,” Bush said. Obama lauded Bush for his “extraordinary strength and resolve” after the Sept. 11 attacks and the unforgettable image of his standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn.
That’s how a restoration begins. Perhaps by 2016, it will have proceeded far enough along that Jeb Bush may yet have his presidency.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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