Is America ready for a third Bush president?

Is America ready for a third Bush president?

George W.’s brother Jeb is suddenly a leading Republican candidate, and he might be the best Bush yet

Jason Reed/Reuters
Jason Reed/Reuters

John Ellis Bush, known by the nickname Jeb, is the second of five children of former president George H.W. Bush. He was the hard-working policy wonk many expected to follow in his father’s footsteps to the White House. When they were kids, his rough-around-the-edges brother, George W., talked about wanting to be a baseball star, but eight-year-old Jeb would tell the family he wanted to be president. “Jebbie was the serious one, the one meticulously planning to run for office for a decade, the one who really knew his stuff,” wrote Bush family biographer Peter Schweizer in The Bushes. “He actually read the briefing papers put out by the think tanks in Washington.”

But fate had other plans. In 1992, both brothers ran for governor—George W. in Texas and Jeb in Florida. The older brother won his race, and the younger brother lost. Though Jeb was elected Florida governor on his second try, in 1998, his brother had a head start and reached the White House—in part because of Jeb’s help in winning Florida in the disputed 2000 election. His brother’s two terms in the White House left the family name political poison. Even matriarch Barbara Bush, asked one year ago about the prospect that Jeb might run for president, declared on the Today show, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

But the family has staying power. They epitomize the Republican establishment, with ancestral links to 15 former presidents. There has been a Bush on every winning Republican presidential ticket going back to 1980. As Republican leaders seek to end their two-term presidential losing streak, they are looking over an unsettled field of candidates and setting their sights on Jeb.

Last month, the analysts at the University of Virginia’s Institute of Politics that run the Crystal Ball, a website of political prognostication, began testing the waters for other candidates against top Republican leaders. They found that Jeb Bush’s name kept coming up. “When we mentioned other names on our list—governors and incumbent senators—we were surprised at the extent to which these top leaders only wanted to talk about Jeb Bush,” says Karl Kondik, a spokesman for the institute. “We now consider Bush the leader of the field if he decides to run.” The Washington Post also surveyed Republican money men—the top donors who financed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012—and most of them named Bush as their top pick. “He’s the most desired candidate out there,” Brian Ballard, a big-ticket fundraiser who sat on the national finance committees for Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008, told the Post. “Everybody that I know is excited about it.”

No less a Republican influencer than Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal, told Fortune magazine last week that Jeb Bush was at the top of his personal presidential list. Even Jeb’s mother is now softening her stance, recently telling Fox News that her son “is the most qualified person in the country, there’s no question about it.”

But where elite leaders want to see a safe choice, Jeb also represents a risk of alienating the Republicans’ populist Tea Party base. Independent-minded, wonkish and pro-immigration, with deep personal ties to the Hispanic community (which overwhelmingly voted Democratic in the last election), he doesn’t hide his desire to remake the Republican party. America may soon find out whether his transformative vision is compatible with the hard-right turn taken by the grassroots of his party since the 2008 financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama.

Long considered wary of joining the presidential fray, the chances of Jeb Bush stepping forward increased with the scandal that engulfed Chris Christie. The Bush family had been supporters of the straight-talking Republican governor of New Jersey, who was not afraid to embrace Barack Obama when it suited him. Jeb Bush saw him as a hard-charging independent-minded politician in his own mould. But Christie’s image was severely damaged by revelations that his top aides orchestrated lane closures on a commuter bridge to wreak havoc with traffic to a community whose mayor did not support the governor. If Christie’s presidential bid dies, Bush’s may well rise from the ashes.

He has said he will decide by the end of the year whether to run for president. In the meantime, he’s doing what it takes to get started, travelling the country giving speeches and helping raise money for Republican candidates ahead of November’s midterm elections. And he’s calling on big donors. Last month, Bush was a speaker at a VIP dinner in Las Vegas hosted by billionaire casino-owner Sheldon Adelson, who gave more than $90 million to Republican candidates in 2012.

Still, it won’t be easy for Jeb Bush, or anyone else, to bridge the rival power centres in the Republican party. If the establishment elites who are gravitating his way dislike the Tea Party activists who make up the party’s emotional core, especially in primary elections, the feeling is mutual. Bush has been critical of the most hard-line rhetoric and tactics that have marked his party in recent years. “Can a candidate run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give a sense that it’s not just idle words and not get back into the vortex of the mud fight?” he asked this month at an event honouring the 25th anniversary of his father’s presidency at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Tex. He seemed to implicitly criticize the ideological litmus testing that has characterized Republican primary contests. “We need to elect candidates that have a vision that is bigger and broader, and candidates that are organized around winning the election, not making a point,” he said.

There was a telling moment during the 2012 Republican debate in Iowa where every one of eight candidates on stage pledged that they were so opposed to tax increases that they would not accept a hypothetical deficit-reduction compromise with Democrats that would include $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending cuts. Bush said he would have taken such a deficit deal and that both Ronald Reagan and his father believed in finding “common ground.” Hard-line tactics, he argued, were making the Republican party unrecognizable to long-time Republicans.

This month he appeared in an ad for a new political group called, focused on a “positive” message for the party. Created by pollster Alex Castellanos, long a critic of negative Republican rhetoric, the group sounds more Whole Foods mom than NASCAR dad. Its credo includes declarations such as: “We believe in natural and organic ways of addressing social challenges, not political and artificial controls directed by Washington.”

Bush’s biggest wander off the reservation has been on immigration reform—a topic that has been a lightning rod in Republican politics. Bush has deep ties to the Spanish-speaking communities of Florida. His wife, Columba, was born in Mexico. The family speaks Spanish at home and Bush even converted to Catholicism. This is all an asset for a party leader who desperately wants to make nice with the fastest-growing segment of the population: Hispanic Americans voted for Obama over Romney, 71 to 27 per cent. But Bush’s talk on immigration amounts to heresy for the party base. Speaking at his father’s anniversary event, Jeb Bush prefaced his comments with the words, “I’m going to say this and it will be on tape and so be it,” as though already anticipating the attack ads in the primary. He went on to portray illegal immigration as parents seeking a better life for their children: “an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime.” He added that it is a crime that “shouldn’t rile people up” and called for comprehensive immigration reform that would enable people to “make a great contribution for their own families but also for us.”

The backlash came quickly. “The rule of law matters,” said Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and potential presidential contender who led the government shutdown last October. Callers on Rush Limbaugh’s conservative talk show discussed whether Jeb Bush was intentionally trying to disqualify himself from the race.

But some conservative voices came out in solidarity. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, who himself has espoused more liberal immigration views, defended Bush: “I think what he was calling attention to is the human element of immigration.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial praised Bush for already having “a better immigration message than the self-defeating ‘self-deportation’ crowd that cost the GOP so dearly in 2012.”

It may be that a softer touch runs in the Bush DNA. In 1988, George H. W. Bush had called for a “kinder and gentler nation,” and was later excoriated by conservatives for breaking a pledge to not raise taxes. George W. Bush talked about a “compassionate conservatism,” and ran up government spending which, in addition to his deficit-funded wars, included a costly new prescription drug benefit for senior citizens on Medicare.

But looking at Bush’s policy record as two-term governor of Florida suggests the moderation is more in his tone than in the substance of his policies. “There is no way you could describe him as anything but a fiscal conservative. Socially, he is definitely pro-life,” says Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. Bush has been active in the social issues that are an important litmus test for Republican primary voters. He signed into law a “Choose life” licence plate for Florida that a previous governor had vetoed. (The proceeds went to support women who gave their babies up for adoption.) He signed a bill requiring minors to notify their parents when seeking an abortion. He also opposed embryonic stem-cell research. His highest profile battle was over the fate of Terri Schiavo. In the highly publicized 2003 case of the vegetative patient, Bush fought in the courts—and ultimately lost—to keep her on life support against the wishes of her husband.

“He was a conservative and he was a strong leader and his results were mixed,” says Matthew Corrigan, author of the forthcoming study of Bush’s time as governor, tentatively titled Conservative Hurricane: The Unstoppable Jeb Bush. In 2005, Bush signed into law the controversial NRA-backed “stand your ground” self-defence law that allows Floridians to use deadly force if they feel threatened. Later, however, he said the law should not have applied in the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who was initially not charged in the case because of the stand-your-ground law. (Zimmerman was eventually tried and acquitted of the killing.)

Skeptics note that even on immigration, Bush’s actual policy positions have not been overly moderate. He was initially in favour of amnesty, or a pathway to citizenship for America’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants—something Democrats and advocacy groups say is a must in a comprehensive reform. But in a book he co-authored last year, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, he backed away from that position. He now calls for legalization—not full citizenship. He favours shifting more U.S. immigration from family reunification to business-based visas. He embraces the conservative call for more border security. Bush still has time to tailor his remarks on immigration to win the party base, notes the University of Virginia’s Kondik. “There is always room to alter your positions or your tone. We saw that Romney was able to do that.”

Education reform was also a focus. Bush emphasized testing of students and grading of schools, firing the administration of those that failed to pass muster. He also took on teachers’ unions and championed so-called “school choice,” which allowed tax dollars to flow to charter schools run separately from the public school system. Bush also pushed for vouchers to allow students to use tax money to pay for private school, including religious institutions, but was blocked by Florida courts. His agenda was similar to his brother’s approach in Texas and predated George W.’s push for the national “no child left behind” law that also emphasized test scores. The results of Jeb Bush’s reforms have been mixed, says Corrigan. Some test scores and graduation rates improved, but results were not uniformly good.

One complication for conservatives is his support for “Common Core,” a federal set of educational standards Bush has supported along with the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Obama administration. Some conservatives are opposed to any federal role in education policy, believing it should be left to the states. But the Common Core is in line with Bush’s passion for education reform that relies on testing and quantitative evaluations. Bush is unapologetic: “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country,” he said at his father’s event in Texas.

As governor, Bush earned a reputation as a geek who founded a Florida think tank and immersed in the finer details of governing while in office. “It was not unusual if you were a state employee in one of the government agencies to get an email from the governor saying, ‘What is going on with the policy? What are you doing?’ He was very involved with the policy details—in contrast with George W. Some would say too much,” says Corrigan.

He also led the state response to several hurricanes that hit during his tenure. “He was someone who could take charge, get something done, and wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get into the rubble and destruction of a hurricane, and not wait 10 days to do it,” says McManus. (By contrast, his brother was criticized for a slow and distant response to the devastation of hurricane Katrina.)

One area where he does not have a track record is foreign policy. During comments to the Sheldon Adelson dinner last month, however, he reportedly criticized Obama’s foreign policy as too passive. “From his background and comments, I’d say he’d be a strong internationalist—supporting a stronger, more muscular foreign policy like his brother [did],” says Corrigan.

Maybe the biggest question still hanging over the former governor is: Would the country want its third Bush president in less than 30 years?

Having Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, on the other side would help neutralize the dynastic issue. “Either of them in the race makes the dynasty argument easier to deal with for both of them,” says Kondik. The Bushes are used to dealing with the baggage of their name. “In every campaign, they have dealt with that issue,” says Corrigan. “They have a response: If you’re not going to vote for me because of my last name, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Bush has also said his decision whether to run will depend on his immediate family: his wife, Columba, who shuns politics and the spotlight and often stayed in Miami during his governorship rather than in the sleepy capital of Tallahassee. She once drew media scrutiny for a $19,000 shopping spree in Paris—of which she declared only $500 at customs, later explaining that she had wanted to conceal the purchases from her husband. The couple’s daughter, Noelle, has been in treatment for drug abuse.

Then there is Jeb’s 37-year-old son, George P. Bush—a politically ambitious lawyer who served eight months in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, under a pseudonym—who is running for the statewide office of land commissioner in Texas in this November’s election. Notes McManus: “By going around and talking about immigration in open fashion and helping other Republicans raise money, he may be setting the plate for his son.”

Either way, the Bush political dynasty is not over yet.