Charleston, SC – It was like old times all over again. President George W. Bush walked out to a crowd of several thousands adoring supporters, who cheered, snapped photos, and beamed as he spoke.
What he needs the crowd to do, though, is vote for his brother, Jeb Bush, on Saturday in the state’s critical primary. It’s not at all clear they’ll do so.
The former president's appearance came two days after a high-octane Republican debate in which Donald Trump accused the Bush administration of manufacturing intelligence to justify the Iraq War, and stood by his past comments calling for George W. Bush's impeachment.
It was, as Jeb Bush said in his own speech Monday night, a scenario that he never imagined possible.
“I closed my eyes and I thought it was Michael Moore on the stage,” the former Florida governor said.
And yet, Trump is the dominant front-runner in polls of South Carolina and beyond while Bush is the one struggling to regain his footing after a fourth place showing in last week's New Hampshire primary. For the family that’s been part of every winning Republican ticket since 1980, it’s a waking nightmare.
George W. Bush got a chance to respond to Trump personally on Monday, though, and he defended his record, saying he had been motivated only by a burning desire to protect America. He contrasted his brother’s “humility” with certain unnamed rivals who use “loud words,” “bluster,” “theatrics” and “petty name calling.”
“Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our frustrations,” the former president said. “We need someone who can fix the problems that cause our anger and frustration and that’s Jeb Bush.”
Politically, the Bush campaign couldn’t be happier to see Trump start a fight over the family’s record on national security. Polls have shown George W. Bush is still popular with Republicans and campaign aides believe he’s even more beloved in South Carolina, which has a deep military tradition and carried him past challenger John McCain in the 2000 GOP contest.
This all had led to a wave of speculation that Trump, who has since toned down some of his harsher accusations, might have done serious damage to himself.
Don’t be so sure.
It’s true Republicans like the last Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, on a personal level, but it’s a much more complicated relationship than the numbers indicate. It’s not a coincidence that Republican candidates praise Ronald Reagan to the point of parody but rarely mention Bush 43 or Bush 41 as role models. The constant refrain from primary voters -- “No more Bushes, no more Clintons” -- is a comment on dynasties on the surface, but it also speaks to the party’s unease.
That complicated emotional relationship was palpable in Charleston on Monday.
Over and over again the same theme came through in interviews: People voted for one or more Bushes, loved them to death, couldn’t wait to cheer them on that night, and yet were deeply uncomfortable with voting for another one.
Beth College, a 61-year old nurse living in Mt. Pleasant, typified this ambivalence.
College came to check out Jeb Bush, is “a big fan of his father and brother” and wasn’t happy when Trump criticized the Iraq War on Saturday. As she sees it, the WMD intelligence was a close call either way and Bush did the best he could.
But Trump is still high on her list of candidates thanks to his business acumen -- and she has serious misgivings about voting Bush.
“I’m not sure I want a Bush dynasty," she said. “We need new blood and new ideas and it’s hard not to have your beliefs and ideas handed down from your family.”
The former president understood the power of this argument all too well, addressing it directly in his speech that night.
“If serving as President of the United States makes me part of the so-called establishment, I’ll proudly carry that label,” he said.
Jason Pluchinsky, a 40-year old Charleston resident, brought his precocious 11-year old daughter along to see the former president, whom he said he admired greatly. Asked how he felt about the Trump/Bush faceoff on Saturday, he asked his little girl to walk out of earshot.
“If Jeb had told him to f—k off, he’d get my vote,” he said.
Bush didn’t say that, though, and he likely isn’t getting Pluchinsky’s vote as a result. Instead he’s considering voting Trump, because the real estate mogul would “shake things up.”
“This election is not about being politically correct, it’s about showing some fire,” he said.
Once again, the former president – famous for his political instincts – recognized this criticism in his speech Monday.
“In my experience, the strongest person is not usually the loudest one in the room,” he said.
Charleston locals Rick Fenolietto and his wife, Celia, both 57, came to see Bush after watching Trump earlier in the day. They’ve been following the Bush family for decades and both say they admire them despite some misgivings over the second Iraq War. Mrs. Fenolietto thought Trump’s attacks on them were “bad politics” and “petty and negative.”
And yet they too sound more intrigued by Trump. Mr. Fenolietto has concluded Bush can’t win a general election. He also works for a defense contractor and Trump’s argument that the military industrial complex is paying off politicians with campaign donations to secure wasteful deals rings very true.
“He is the only non-politician left,” Fenolietto said of Trump.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Fenolietto likes Trump’s economic message and, after reviewing Trump’s mellower interviews from the 1980s, is convinced he’ll tone things down if he wins.
“It will be calmer then, whoever the nominee is,” she said.
Looking at the current primary campaign, there’s a whole lot of tension over the Bush record that’s been papered over by the party’s general sympathy with the tough hand he was dealt by terrorism and the collapse of the housing bubble.
The last President Bush envisioned a Republican party that championed immigration reform; now it’s tearing itself apart over the same issue. Jeb Bush’s first campaign misstep – arguably his defining one -- was over how to address his brother's invasion of Iraq, which he painfully conceded was a “mistake.” When Trump attacked Senator Ted Cruz for supporting Bush’s appointment of John Roberts on Saturday, Cruz immediately distanced himself from the Chief Justice who twice upheld Obamacare. And don’t get Republicans started on David Souter, the George H.W. Bush appointee who provided a consistent liberal vote before retiring in 2009.
Republicans may like Bush as the guy who made a good faith effort to keep them safe, but Bushism is a tough sell these days.