President George W. Bush (L) smiles at his brother Florida Governor Jeb Bush before making remarks at an event in Sun City Center, Fla., on March 8, 2006.
Photo by Chris Livingston/EPA

Jeb Bush and the ghost of W

Updated

The model for Jeb Bush’s campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is obvious: his brother.

Sixteen years ago, George W. Bush joined an unusually cluttered and formless Republican field in a race considered more wide open than any the party had ever seen. Within months, though, Bush had imposed order on the process by raking in previously unimaginable sums of cash and racking up an all-star roster of endorsements. By the end of 1999, before a single primary or caucus vote had been cast, Bush had intimidated six separate rivals out of the race, with one poll putting him 48 points ahead of his nearest remaining rival.

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This rapid trajectory — from untested legacy candidate to overpowering front-runner — is exactly what Jeb Bush and his team are aiming for now with their “shock-and-awe” strategy, a belief that a massive cash haul will produce a self-fulfilling narrative of inevitability.

The $100,000-per-head Park Avenue fundraiser that Bush’s PAC held last week illustrates this strategy in action, as is a Washington Post report that the former Florida governor is “far-eclipsing” his would-be opponents in the early chase for dollars. And with his declaration that he’s “willing to lose the primary to win the general election,” Jeb is making the same bet his brother did in his 2000 bid: That after eight years of being locked out, Republicans are willing to excuse an ideological apostasy or two in order to win back the White House.

“The 43rd president, in other words, is the biggest single reason why his younger brother may fall flat on his face.”

But there are already signs that what worked so brilliantly for W may be futile for Jeb. The former Florida governor faces fiercer competition on his right and far stiffer resistance from the base; the mood of the party is far less pragmatic today; and even an obscenely fat bank account may not be enough to save him.

And the irony is this: All these obstacles exist not in spite of the fact that George W. Bush succeeded with the same playbook in 2000, but because he did. The 43rd president, in other words, is the biggest single reason why his younger brother may fall flat on his face.

This is not just a function of the dreadful poll numbers with which George W. Bush left office. It has much more to do with how the conservative base has chosen to interpret the W years and how that interpretation has upended Republican politics.

Consider the psychological condition of the Republican Party back in 2000 when it embraced George W. Bush as its standard-bearer.

The 1998 midterms had been a disaster for the GOP, marking the first time since the James Monroe administration that an opposition party lost congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency. The culprit was the Republican drive to impeach Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, an effort that they’d accelerated throughout ’98 even as polling showed the country rallying strongly behind the president — and against his inquisitors. By Election Day, Clinton’s approval rating had climbed to nearly 70%. The shock of the result — Republicans began the cycle predicting a gain of up to 40 House seats but ended up losing five – was enough to compel to Newt Gingrich to resign as Speaker.

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It wasn’t the first time the GOP had misjudged Clinton. Republicans initially dismissed the former Arkansas governor’s presidency as a fluke — he’d been elected with just 43% of the vote in a three way contest. It was an instinct seemingly confirmed as Clinton flailed through the first two years of his term. When Republicans seized control of both the House and Senate for the first time in generations in 1994, they took it as validation of their all-out opposition to Clinton.

That was the backdrop for the government shutdown of 1995. Gingrich and the right believed that a defining confrontation Clinton over the size and scope of government would turn Americans off on Democrats for good and usher in an even more robust Republican future. Instead, Clinton painted them as extremists hell-bent on slashing Medicare and “won” the shutdown, a key moment in the revival of his presidency.

“As the GOP turned its attention to 2000, Clinton was very much in their heads – the crafty enemy who had proven maddeningly elusive.”
A year later, running a re-election campaign that relentlessly linked GOP nominee Bob Dole to Gingrich, Clinton coasted to a second term – another psychic jolt to Republicans who had all but left him for dead just two years earlier.

As the GOP turned its attention to 2000, Clinton was very much in their heads — the crafty enemy who had proven maddeningly elusive. The key to Clinton’s success had been his ability to present himself as the protector of America’s commitment to the vulnerable, and Republicans as heartless ideologues. Tired of being thwarted by him, Republicans instead grew interested in co-opting Clinton’s strategy, finding their own affable, non-threatening front-man who would defy the party’s cold-hearted image.

So when George W. Bush began talking up the “compassionate conservatism” that would become his campaign’s trademark, he was a man very much in sync with his party at the time. The editorial page of the staunchly right-wing Union-Leader newspaper in the key primary state of New Hampshire opined that “[a] little marketing of just how conservatives are compassionate might be a good thing.”

This put Bush in an enviable position. He could introduce himself to the national media as a different kind of Republican, one who talked of the plight of “the men and women in decaying cities from the barrios of L.A. to the Rio Grande Valley” and lamented that “too often my party has confused the need of limited government with a disdain for government itself.” And at the same time, key leaders on the right had his back.

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For Bush, this translated into enviable early polling numbers. In February ’99, a Los Angeles Times survey found that 60% of voters — not just Republicans, but all voters — had a favorable impression of him, compared to only 8% who viewed him negatively. Moreover, every trial heat in that early stage of the race that matched him against the presumed Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, gave Bush a decisive advantage, with leads as high as 18 points.

These were all essential ingredients for what W then pulled off.  As ’99 began, a dozen Republicans were positioning themselves to run for president in what was being touted as the most unpredictable GOP contest ever — the first time in the modern era that there hadn’t been a logical “next-in-line” candidate. Bush was initially considered a very modest co-front-runner along with Elizabeth Dole, who had stolen the show at the 1996 Republican Convention that nominated her husband. Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan — all of whom had waged credible runs in ’96 — were lining up at the starting gate again. They were joined by Senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Bob Smith; Congressman John Kasich; social conservatives Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes; and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

“Out of this chaotic mix, Bush managed to emerge as the dominant favorite — and quickly. At his disposal was his family’s extensive network of friendships, alliances and contacts.”

Out of this chaotic mix, Bush managed to emerge as the dominant favorite — and quickly. At his disposal was his family’s extensive network of friendships, alliances and contacts. His team boasted of an initial list of more than 120,000 potential donors, and in the early months of ’99 a steady stream of Republican power-players were flown to Austin for sit-downs at the governor’s mansion. Publicly, there was a parade of high-profile endorsements, including virtually all of the GOP’s swing state governors. Privately, the money came gushing in.

From then on, it was a roll. Bush pulled far ahead of the field in polling and his rivals’ cash dried up until, one by one, they hit the exits. And while McCain, Bush’s only real challenger, did ride a wave of independent support to wins in New Hampshire and a few other primaries, Bush’s grip on the GOP faithful remained firm the whole way. In the end, there was no math that could have vaulted McCain – or anyone else – to victory over Bush.

Now compare all of this to what Jeb Bush is facing today, starting with the mood of the Republican Party. The “Just win, baby!” spirit that prevailed in the late ‘90s has been replaced by a grassroots yearning for ideological purity and distance from anything or anyone connected with the party establishment. This is the product of a conservative movement that interprets Barack Obama’s presidency far differently than it interpreted Clinton’s. And that interpretation of the Obama-era is directly related to how the right has chosen to reckon with George W’s presidency. 

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This is the story of the tea party, which came to life around Obama’s inauguration. In part, it reflected the predictable reaction of one party’s base to the election of a candidate from the other party. But it was also, crucially, a response to the Bush presidency – to the idea that in accepting “compassionate conservatism” in the name of victory in 2000, the GOP had corrupted itself; the idea that the Bush administration had expanded government irresponsibly and given conservatism a bad name, and created the conditions that hastened Obama’s rise. This is the real story of the tea party: It’s not just an effort to fight Obama. It’s a mission to keep the Republican Party from selling out again.

This helps explain why early polling finds markedly less enthusiasm for Jeb among Republicans than there was for his brother. Jeb is now running at a mere 16% in the average of all national polls. In Iowa, he’s sitting in fourth place, under 10%. He’s fallen behind Scott Walker in New Hampshire. Before he ended his flirtation with running again this time, Mitt Romney was tested against Jeb in five national polls, and Romney led him in every single one of them. In January’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 30% of conservatives said they have a favorable view of Jeb. This all points to a level of resistance among the Republican rank and file that George W. Bush never confronted.

“The ‘Just win, baby!’ spirit that prevailed in the late ‘90s has been replaced by a grassroots yearning for ideological purity and distance from anything or anyone connected with the party establishment.”
It also augurs poorly for Jeb’s strategy of running a general election-minded primary campaign. The beauty of his brother’s “compassionate conservatism” was that it had buy-in from the base. They accepted W as one of their own and gave him a free pass to posture toward the middle even as he ran in the primaries. 

So far, though, that is not what we’re seeing with Jeb. His moderate immigration stance, ardent support for Common Core education standards, and moderate tone on gay rights may all be helpful in a general election. But to today’s GOP base, they are all warning signs.

Then there’s electability, W’s trump card as he built his mighty machine in ’99. His steady, commanding lead over Al Gore in those early days lent urgency to his pitch to potential donors: This train is heading straight to the White House, so you’d better get on board now. Jeb, though, has trailed Hillary Clinton in every poll in which they’ve been matched, with an average deficit of 9 points. That’s no better than Chris Christie fares and only a slight improvement from Rand Paul’s standing.

Yes, there is a path to the nomination for Jeb. He may well succeed in amassing a gigantic treasury, which will count for a lot even while the advent of billionaire-bankrolled super PACs makes it much easier for his rivals to compete. Plus, as Nate Cohn of the New York Times has demonstrated, there are enough delegate-rich where moderate Republicans and independents hold sway in primaries for a candidate like Jeb — and Mitt Romney or John McCain before him — to prevail.

But that is a perilous path to follow. It’s also not the path that his brother followed 16 years ago, when the reddest states with the most conservative Republicans gave him his best margins and biggest delegate hauls during the primary season. Fundamentally, George W. Bush was a candidate of the GOP base, and that status was essential to his impressive electoral achievement. Jeb is not a candidate of the GOP base and there’s reason to suspect he never will be. If that keeps him from winning, he’ll have his older brother to thank for it. 

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush and the ghost of W

Updated