On Wednesday, former GOP favorite Florida Gov. Jeb Bush picked himself up, dusted off his tailored suit and turned back to public speaking after a less than stellar performance on the campaign trail, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Going into the 2016 presidential race, Bush was the GOP favorite. Third in the line of a long-established and true-blue conservative dynasty, he was the shoo-in to become the face of the Republican establishment — maybe not so easily winning the general election, but at least winning his primary.
It’s funny how things change — for him, and by association, the political opportunity of the Bush consortium. Months, donors, dinners and $130 million later, Bush sank without a trace — almost as if the nation had chosen to maintain that, even eight years later, another Bush was too soon. Bush’s embarrassingly rapid defeat evinces a larger truth: It may not be so unreasonable to say that the political preeminence of the Bush family — at least as far as national office-holding goes — is over.
The reasons for Jeb’s failure are numerous, but two are paramount. First, George W. Bush’s blunders were far too injurious to forget. And second, the politicos produced by the Bush family are not the type of candidate the existing conservative electorate seems to want.
During the initial primary debates, Jeb Bush consistently stated he was “proud” of his older brother, stating that George W. “kept us safe.” But the 43rd president, his two fruitless wars, the Great Recession and his “axis of evil” clearly were not forgotten by the American people. The very fact that moderators chose to direct precious time toward a discussion of George W.’s failures reveals two important and potentially campaign-destroying principles: First, it comes with the assumption that there is a direct correlation between the policies of George W. Bush and the performance of a hypothetical President Jeb. One wouldn’t so quickly ask, say, Ted Cruz what he thought of the last Bush administration — it wouldn’t be pertinent.
From the conservative perspective, the Bush failures are still painful, if not embarrassing. After eight years and continuing intervention in the Middle East, not every conservative is convinced that George W. made the right decision, did his best or, as Jeb suggested, kept the country out of harm’s way. Jeb Bush’s campaign was haunted by the shadows of the former Bush’s failures. He was a headache, he was a failure — and then he was a joke. Jeb’s connection to him was the first strike against his presidential bid. Even eight years later and with anti-Obama sentiment remaining high among the right, it was still not so easy to be named Bush. It was as though the country saw his run as George W.’s do-over; a second try — or a third try, maybe, for a political family that created arguably one of the worst leaders in American history. The establishment had lost its last two races; where were they to go? Back to the time of elite, traditionalist conservatives — Jeb Bush — or forward, toward a new form of conservatism: the identity-driven, ferociously patriotic, warmongering, blundering, reactionary, soundbite-heavy new wave — or, in other words, Donald Trump?
The Bush family produces candidates that are of the old front — the golf-playing, suit-strutting, pro-business and matter-of-fact conservatives like George H.W. Bush once was. The new wave of celebrity politicians we’re seeing their electorate scream for — bombastic and narcissistic Trump, self-righteous and awkwardly patronizing Cruz — does not include what one might be tempted to call real politicians. Even the new youth of the family, one Texas state politician, hardly fits the profile.
What the Bush loss most clearly signifies is that the rug was pulled out from under him — the rules around appealing to the electorate and operating within the establishment all seemed to change. Like a black animal in a snowy environment, the conservative ecosystem has de-selected the Bush brand of candidate. It’s a natural part of what Mike Huckabee wouldn’t call evolution.
The changing environment of conservative politics may have all but ended the political trajectory of the Bush family, at least on a national level — Southern state politics and our politico-economic iron triangles aside. Will Jeb be the last of what we’ll see from the Bushes? The last election would suggest it so.
Lily Vaughan is a freshman majoring in history and political science. Her column, “Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.