Assuming he decides on running for president, Jeb Bush starts 2016 with one huge advantage and one massive weakness and they’re both the same thing: His last name.
The former Florida governor has to carry not one, but two presidencies’ worth of baggage along with him on the trail. His father, George H.W. Bush, was drummed out of office after one term by Democrat Bill Clinton. And his brother, George W. Bush, was hugely unpopular when he left office after two terms in 2008.
Jeb Bush he has his own long and varied career in politics. For better or worse, though, the Bush brand is inextricably linked to his campaign and will play a major role in everything that comes next.
There’s plenty of upside to being a Bush. Family connections helped kick-start Jeb’s political career early on and now they help provide a powerful base of donors, staff, and surrogates. But as Democrats and Republicans alike made clear within hours of his Tuesday announcement, Bush’s critics won’t hesitate to use the same ties against him.
On Twitter, the Democratic National Committee debuted an attack you can expect to see daily as long as Jeb openly considers a run for president.For skeptics on the right in the GOP primary, the Bush name represents an unforgivable tax increase and political disaster under Bush 41 and profligate spending and bailouts under Bush 43. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to tie him to the Iraq war and 2008 economic meltdown.
Bush’s political arc might have been very different already if not for his brother’s second term collapse. Many observers credit George W. Bush’s struggles with keeping his brother out of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, where the Florida governor’s impressive political resume might have stood out. “If his name weren’t Bush, he’d be running for president, I’m convinced,” Mitt Romney told reporters in 2007. “And we’d all have to stand aside because he’d be such a sure-fire winner.”
In 2012, the Bush brand was still weak enough that Republican presidential candidates almost never mentioned his presidency in debates or speeches, opting instead to tie themselves to Ronald Reagan at every opportunity. When the topic turned to Bush, it was usually to highlight their differences — Romney contrasted his position on the auto bailout, for example, while Rick Santorum liked to boast that he challenged Bush on his policy towards Iran.
This isn’t just because they feared turning off general election voters, either. The burgeoning tea party movement viewed itself in many ways as a corrective to the Bush era. It’s impossible to understand the rise of someone like Rand Paul — another likely 2016 candidate and a stinging critic of the 43rd president’s record on civil liberties, fiscal issues, and foreign policy — outside of this context.
The question now is whether enough time has passed that the idea of another Bush is acceptable to GOP voters and independents. Even Jeb’s own mother, Barbara Bush, is uneasy with the idea on principle, if not policy: In 2013 she said she didn’t want her son to run because “we’ve had enough Bushes.” She also told C-SPAN in January that “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly.” She’s reportedly since warmed to the idea.
Some commentators have made the case that the threat the family name poses to Jeb Bush’s candidacy may be overblown given how much time has passed since the last Bush held office. The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, for example, recently wrote that “the Bush brand is seeing a resurgence” based on George W. Bush’s rising popularity in polls. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 49% of Americans viewed him favorably, a 14% increase since he left office in 2009.
Good news for Jeb, right? Don’t buy it yet. Yes, George W. Bush’s personal image has improved now that he’s the friendly guy who attends nonpartisan ceremonies and pursues a painting hobby. But as Henderson notes, this happens to every president once they’re no longer subject to constant partisan attacks and the public stops holding them accountable for whatever’s wrong in world that day, from Ebola outbreaks to oil spills. Bush’s popularity is still weak in that context.
More importantly, there’s a gap between how voters view Bush the man versus Bush the president. A good gauge of this distinction is polling that asks voters whether major problems today are Bush’s fault.
Take the economy. Exit polls on election night 2012 found that 53% of voters blamed Bush for the state of the economy versus 38% who blamed Obama. This pervasive view was a huge and under-appreciated factor in the president’s re-election.
But that was two years ago when the Obama campaign was running a $1 billion effort to sell voters on his economic stewardship. Surely things are different now, right?
Shockingly, no, they aren’t. Polls in July and December of 2013 found the same thing. As recently as February of 2014 — a month where Obama’s approval ratings were scraping new lows and a whole five years after Bush left office — Obama still got the benefit of the doubt in a CNN poll: 44% of respondents blamed Bush for ongoing economic woes versus 34% who blamed Obama. The best you can say for Bush is that the numbers are slowly heading in his direction. Still, it’s striking that voters aren’t ready to hand ownership of the economy to Obama even while they tell pollsters they’re broadly dissatisfied with his policies.
How about foreign policy? When the Islamic State took over large swaths of Iraq in July, Quinnipiac polled Americans and found they blamed the situation on Bush by a 51-27 margin. This is, simply put, a stunning result. The survey took place at a time when Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy was weak, Republicans were en route to a wave election, and a daily legion of critics were accusing the president of failing to prevent ISIS gains either by building up Syrian rebels or leaving U.S. troops in Iraq. When it comes to the Bush presidency, Americans seem slow to forgive and forget.
We don’t have to guess the effect pervasively negative views of the George W. Bush presidency have had in coloring views of the hypothetical Jeb Bush presidency. Polls over the last year have routinely found Jeb underwater, meaning more respondents say they have an unfavorable view of him than have a favorable one. An October ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 52% of registered voters thought he would not make a good president, the worst of any Republican candidate tested (although not by much). On Tuesday, a new NBC News/WSJ poll found 31% of voters said they could see themselves voting for Bush in 2016 versus 57% who said they couldn’t. For Clinton, the split was 50% who would vote for her and 48% who said they would not.
Unless you believe Americans have very strong opinions about Florida state politics in the mid-2000s, it seems safe to assume voters asked about Bush in these polls are mainly going off name recognition. And they don’t like the name.
“Results like that are as much a reflection on the effects of George W. Bush’s upside-down legacy as they are a product of anything voters know about Jeb personally or his record as governor,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Obama’s re-election in 2012, told msnbc.
It’s worth pausing to clarify that this is only the starting point for the likely campaign. Bush hasn’t even begun to introduce himself to voters and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to distinguish himself from the rest of his family if he wants (which could be an awkward balancing act all its own). If Obama’s approval ratings collapse, the story of the election might become Democrats struggling to escape an unpopular incumbent the way Republicans failed to in 2008. Hillary Clinton, should she run and win the Democratic nomination, will face many of the same questions about political dynasties, although her husband’s presidency is remembered a lot more fondly. But make no mistake: Bush’s first job will be to convince Republican, Democrats, and Independents alike that the apple falls far from the family tree.