I thought it only fair to warn you. A perfect storm of political factors south of the border is ensuring the return to prominence — and just maybe to top-tier political significance — of America’s favourite/least favourite family of patrician Massachussetts Republicans with occasional bursts of Southern populism, extraordinary rendition, temporary-gone-permanent tax cuts and squinty eyebrows.
I refer, of course, to the Bushes. George H.W.; George W.; Jeb. (But apparently not Barney.)
The catalyst will be a new book from the patriarch of the political Bushes, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President — the one who served as Ronald Reagan’s VP and who served one term before losing to Bill Clinton in 1992. He’s got a new book out, collected from his voluminous correspondence. Its author may intend it as a valedictory; his health has not been good for a few years now, and the family had to shoo reporters away when many assumed the worst about a stay in the hospital that lasted two months.
The book offers a partial answer to a fascinating question: What did Bush 41 think of Bush 43, anyway? The two had highly dissimilar governing styles and philosophies. The son seems to have viewed the father’s presidency as a set of mistakes best avoided; the father seems to have sent out surrogates to argue against the Iraq war in 2002-2003. But at least when the younger Bush was hurting, the elder Bush sympathized. After Hurricane Katrina, when 43 came in for criticism, 41 called himself “an old man hurting for my son.”
As for 43, he’s kept his head down since he left the White House and that’s unlikely to change. In contrast to Dick Cheney, who loves to talk and therefore winds up in every third Maureen Dowd column, 43 pops up mostly only in unpolitical contexts; he spoke at the funeral for the legendary Texas classical pianist Van Cliburn this week.
The real attention-getter for the next while will be the other Bush son. Jeb, former governor of Florida, closer to his mother in looks but perhaps closer to his father in political style. The Great Moderate GOP Hope of 2016. To be sure, he’s stumbled badly out of the starting gate.
Bush’s closest allies insist that he hasn’t changed; it’s the immigration debate in his party that’s lurched forward. When he wrote the book with coauthor Clint Bolick last year, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was lashing out at his rivals for supporting “amnesty” and promoting “self-deportation.” Bush sent his book to the printer before Christmas, just as President Obama’s overwhelming success with Hispanic voters was prompting Republican leaders to reconsider their hardline stance against illegal immigration. In January, a bipartisan group of senators embraced a sweeping set of reforms, including a pathway to citizenship.
So instead of trying to move his party forward on immigration reform, Bush unexpectedly finds himself trying to catch up.
But it’s pretty clear that Jeb wonders whether he’s 45, and he’ll be interesting to watch over the next few years. It seems to me he has a tricky needle to thread. He would have been far too moderate to be nominated if he’d tried in 2012, and I suspect may still be unable to fend off a challenge from the right in 2016. And he’d have a flock of challengers. With Barack Obama unable to run for a third term, the 2016 race is wide open. A lot of Republicans will want to try their luck. But the Bush family name is still so toxic with much of the U.S. electorate, thanks to his brother’s economic management and foreign-policy adventures, that Jeb would have little room to grow among centrists in the general election. He’ll need a fancy Etch-a-Sketch to execute those kinds of turns. My hunch is that, despite the fondest dreams of people who like dynasties in politics, 2016 will not turn into Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush. But he’s welcome to try, and seems to intend to.
For more reading on this family, I highly recommend Joe Hagan’s sprawling family profile in New York magazine last autumn, which focused on Jeb while keeping the whole family in view; and Jeb Bush’s angry response to Hagan’s article.