What's in a name?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Is the Bush Family Brand a Liability for Jeb?

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
Read More.
a | A

The legacy matchup -- Jeb versus Hillary -- has politics aficionados salivating, or recoiling, with the first 2016 presidential votes almost a year away.

The former secretary of state, a prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination, won’t simply be coronated, as some anticipate. Already, there are internal frictions in Clintonland that recall her 2008 campaign.

The problems facing the former Florida governor are more in the open: For a candidate that much of the Republican Party establishment views as a strong front-runner, he gets surprisingly bad marks from voters.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll last month, Jeb Bush was viewed positively by only 19 percent of respondents; 32 percent viewed him negatively. By contrast, Hillary Clinton had a 45 percent positive and 37 percent negative.

Two recent Bloomberg Politics polls, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the initial tests, are revealing.

In Iowa, among likely Republican voters, Bush has a 43 percent unfavorable rating, unusually high.

In a tightly packed race, he finishes first among New Hampshire Republican primary voters. But he is viewed unfavorably by 50 percent of the general electorate in that battleground state. Of the 22 possible presidential aspirants, only Donald Trump is perceived more negatively.

Bush's backers counter that such early polls are irrelevant because the public doesn't yet know his achievements as a successful conservative two-term governor or his reputation as the most substantive politician in the Bush clan. If Jeb Bush runs, these attitudes "will change when they get to know him and his record," says Mike Murphy, a Bush political confidant.

The negatives probably reflect views about his older brother, George W. Bush, whose presidency ended six years ago. "All they know" about Jeb, Murphy said, is that "he is the brother." 

Unsettling to some other Republican strategists is that the Bush brand itself might be problematic. The record of Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, has been re-evaluated more positively: He is credited with expertly managing the end of the Cold War, the successful first Iraq War, a budget deficit deal and passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. But those are distant memories for many voters, unlike George W. Bush's presidency.  

The 43rd president remains decidedly less popular than Bill Clinton, his predecessor. In a Quinnipiac poll last year that asked who was the best of the dozen post-World War II presidents, George W. Bush tied for last place, with only 1 percent. 

Jeb Bush probably would have to try to strike some distance from his brother. The most noteworthy domestic achievement of Bush 43, legislation giving prescription drug benefits to senior citizens, is hard to embrace when Republicans are denouncing Obamacare.

The Bush tax cuts led to soaring deficits and its jobs record isn't one Republicans relish: Almost 21 million private sector jobs were created during Clinton’s eight years in office, and there were 7.5 million in President Barack Obama’s first six years. Under George W. Bush, 463,000 jobs were lost.

On foreign policy, the conservative icon William F. Buckley once declared that President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq was all-defining: “If he’d invented the Bill of Rights, it wouldn’t get him out of his jam.” That decision still looks like a jam.

On Friday, Bush said he "won't talk" about his brother's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 But the association may be hard to shake. In Iowa, 50 percent of Republicans said the strength of his potential candidacy rested more on family connections than on his vision for the country or unique qualities; only one in five Democrats thought that was the case with Hillary Clinton and the connection to her husband.

The view was even more widespread in New Hampshire, where two-thirds of general-election voters said Jeb Bush’s candidacy would be based on his family connections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net