GEORGE W. BUSH resurfaced this week, in the time-honoured tradition of former US Presidents opening presidential libraries; he has advocated younger brother Jeb running for the US presidency in 2016. Could this most successful of political dynasties produce another American President?
Controversy is never far away these days when it comes to discussing the Bush family; like the Kennedys and the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts, it has been among the most prominent clans in American political life for generations, having produced Senators, state Governors, and two Presidents, and whose members have also filled a myriad of other roles in circles of American governance.
Much of this controversy stems from the Presidency of George W. Bush, which divides and polarises opinion both at home and around the world. Was this the Presidency that saw America reclaim its position in the world, and begin the painful process of migrating the US to the realities of the 21st century?
Or was it the defective and misspent opportunity presided over by a village idiot and manipulated by “evil” Dick Cheney, which heightened the risk of worldwide war and sent the USA down the path of economic ruin?
I suspect final judgements on these issues will take many years to crystallise — history often does. But Bush has reignited a discussion that has simmered since his second term began in 2005: should younger brother (and former Governor of Florida) Jeb Bush run for the Presidency in 2016?
Three years out, my sense is that he should; the Republican Party will need a nationally recognised candidate with a proven record in public office if it is to stand any chance of reclaiming the White House when Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017.
This is an area in which Republicans have fared poorly since the departure of Ronald Reagan from the Presidency in 1989; his successor, former President George H. W. Bush, could well be viewed as lucky.
In 1988, he followed the most popular President in recent times into the White House four years after the most spectacular presidential election win in US history, and at a time in which the boom of the 1980s had yet to fully burst and when the USA was riding high on confidence.
His defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton was a salutary lesson in the mechanics of modern election techniques — and in the importance of honesty, having promised that Americans could “read my lips: no new taxes” and then proceeded to introduce precisely those.
Bob Dole in 1996 was hamstrung by the fact he was too old (at 73) and on account of being widely regarded in America as too divisive; John McCain in 2008 was also seen as too old (72), swimming against the tide of the economic disaster now known as the Global Financial Crisis, attributed rightly or wrongly to the policies of the outgoing Bush administration.
And Mitt Romney last year was simply the wrong candidate: decent and articulate, he looked like a President, but was too similar to many Republican-inclined voters to the Democratic Party to offer any real alternative to the incumbent Obama.
Ironically, and on paper, George W. was an impressively-credentialled candidate; twice elected as Governor of Texas, he was telegenic and popular, although his folksy style (and capacity to mangle words) made him a figure of fun and derision in many quarters.
I think that had Newt Gingrich — former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s — won the nomination to stand against Obama last year, he probably would have won; but hypotheticals are just that, and it brings us back to the question of whether Jeb Bush should run in 2016.
Whoever does stand for the Republican Party is likely to face off against former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the merits of another Clinton as President are as dubious to me as those of another Bush are to those on the political Left.
But the fact of the matter is that Republicans are going to need to select a candidate capable of beating the high-profile, well-resourced Clinton, who boasts a formidable campaign weapon in the form of her husband, teflon-coated ex-President Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton, whose popularity remains vast despite his various failures and foibles in office.
Viewed this way, the GOP has surprisingly few options, despite the score of names that make up the likely field of starters — even this far out from the election.
Romney has already said he will not run again, and in any case would face the same question of his age (69 in 2016) as did Dole and McCain; Gingrich, 72 in a few years’ time, has probably missed on his first and best opportunity in failing to clinch the Republican nomination last time.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum — nominally having put in a strong showing in the GOP primaries against Gingrich and Romney — will likely run again, and at 58 when the contest occurs is certainly the right age.
Yet his brand of conservatism is too doctrinaire and rigid to appeal to the majority of swinging voters in America’s political centre, and what might play well with the Republican Right is probably a recipe for disaster at a general election.
And the raft of past and present Republican state Governors that is habitually trotted out — most notably at present, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — comprises a group of individuals with, mostly, little profile beyond the boundaries of their own states, and little public support in the context of the US Presidency.
Christie is different, in that he has willingly grabbed the opportunity as Governor for media exposure on a national basis whenever it has arisen, most notably during the Hurricane Sandy disaster in the dying days of the 2012 campaign.
But Christie — a veritable mountain of a man — faces ongoing concerns that his weight poses a grave danger of him dying in office as it is, let alone within four years of any presidential win in 2016.
And he isn’t likely to make it that far in any case, with a large contingent of Republicans residually livid with him for fulsomely endorsing Obama’s handling of the Sandy disaster, and to many minds (including my own) effectively terminating Romney’s campaign for the Presidency from within, one week from polling day, by doing so.
It is inconceivable the same Republicans would tolerate his candidacy.
This brings us back to Jeb Bush, and to my mind he’s the GOP’s best bet by a mile.
He declined to enter the fray for the Republican nomination in 2012; possibly a wise decision, given the circus the primary contests degenerated into and given Obama was always likely to be re-elected once Christie effectively intervened in his favour.
His background in politics is exemplary; after several years in that state’s Congress, he became Florida’s Governor in 1999 in a state that had not elected a Republican between 1877 and 1967, and over which Republican Governors had presided for just 17 of the 145 years to that point.
Jeb Bush ticks a lot of the boxes that many of his Republican contemporaries don’t, or can’t; an orthodox conservative politician, he nonetheless boasts relationships with, and support from, Hispanic and Asian Americans that would be critical in any Presidential bid.
(Romney, for example, won 81% of the Presidential votes cast by white Americans, and still lost to Obama).
And Spanish-speaking Bush, married to a Mexican and espousing innovative and practical ideas about how to solve the USA’s illegal immigration crisis, offers his party the means with which to reach out to and embrace minority communities in America that the likes of Romney and Santorum could only dream of.
Critics will point to the facts of the Florida controversy in the 2000 election that saw his older brother become President and, cruelly, even the fact he is a member of the Bush family at all.
I think the idea of Jeb Bush as President of the United States is not only interesting, it’s probably the best option for his country after Obama leaves office, and especially in light of some of the openly socialist and ideologically driven left-wing measures introduced by the present administration that will need to be wound back.
Of his intentions regarding 2016, Bush simply says that he will make a decision in at least a year from now, in time for the endless drudgery of fundraising and planning that is part of a Presidential run in the US to commence, should he opt to throw his hat in the ring.
In the view of this column, that’s a year for his contemporaries in the GOP to get to work on him, and to convince him to run.