Is America Ready for the Return of the Bush Dynasty?

American political memories can be both impressively long and terribly short. And somewhere in the middle, minds start to change.

by Kevin Lincoln
18 December 2014, 6:05pm

Photo by Jim Watson/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, a former Florida governor named Jeb Bush posted a holiday-themed Facebook post that, aside from reminding us of how even politicians are somebody's dad, announced he would "actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States." Along with being a particularly impressive exercise in Playing It Cool — "hey girl, you want to actively explore the possibility of getting a cocktail?" — Jeb's announcement might've set off some jingle bells in your brain. That guy's last name, it sure does sound familiar.

Jeb, of course, is a Bush, son of George H.W. and brother of George W., the 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States. If he does decide to actively explore running for president, and then actively runs for president, Jeb would be bidding to become the 45th president. Then we'd get another one-president break, after which the Bush family would have to trot out someone else, and, locked into this pattern, we'd repeat ourselves ad nauseam until constant email leaks destroyed the country entirely.

It's been over 20 years since H.W. was in office, but the memory of W. is still fresh in the minds of most voting-age American citizens — and there's a good chance those memories aren't all warm and fuzzy ones. W. left office in 2009 with a cellar-floor approval rating (although President Obama's isn'tmuch higher these days); and, for what they're worth, polls of presidential scholars tend to place #43 in the bottom-ten of American presidents, where he joins history-class inside-jokes like Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, and Warren G. Harding.

This raises a question for Jeb: despite his high approval ratings as governor in Florida, would having W. as a brother be a major hit to his chances of becoming president? And is W. still the albatross that some Americans, particularly those on the left, are convinced he might be?

Although conservative analysts I spoke with were reluctant to discuss the relationship between 61-year-old Jeb and his 68-year-old brother George, there's a decent amount of evidence on the record to suggest that it isn't super-tight. In May, Politico's Maggie Haberman wrote that some insiders had suggested W. was "ambivalent" about Jeb running, and that the two have never been "deeply close" or "formed a reliance on each other as confidants." And in 2008, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy, painted a picture of the pair as siblingrivals, suggesting that jealousy of Jeb "was a factor in George's effort to pull his life together at age 40, when he found God and quit drinking," and that George had "torpedoed" his younger brother's presidential aspirations.

Two details from Weisberg's piece are particularly illustrative. First: "In the hotel suite in Houston where George was celebrating [his win in the 1994 race for Texas governor], his aunt, Nancy Ellis, heard him speaking to his father over the phone. 'Why do you feel bad about Jeb?' he asked his dad, according to one biography of the family. 'Why don't you feel good about me?'"

Then: "While Jeb seems resigned to abandoning politics, family friends have described his parents as devastated that the older son spiked the chances of the younger one. In December 2006, the former president gave a glimpse of this when he paid tribute to his second son at a ceremony to mark the end of Jeb's two terms as governor. Bush began to crack when talking about Jeb's 1994 defeat, and how his son didn't whine or complain about the unfair attacks on him in the election. 'The true measure of a man is ... ' Bush tried to say, now openly sobbing as Jeb approached to comfort him, ' ... is how you handle victory ... and also defeat.'"

But American memories can be both impressively long and shockingly short, and in somewhere in the middle, minds change. Among conservatives, the opinion of W. has risen steadily since he left office—a combination of reassessment, wounds healed, and personal affection for the folksy president. Plus, in the harsh light of the Obama presidency, the right has reason to look back fondly on the last time their party held the White House.

"I think George is viewed very differently now than he was in 2008, and we can thank Barack Obama for a lot of that," Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson told me. W., he said, "is a smart guy in many ways, even if they aren't Harvard Law professor ways. He understands people, and he knew to stay out of the game last time around. But I think W. will benefit Jeb if he does choose to run."

"We haven't won the White House since 1928 without a Bush or a Nixon on the ballot," Wilson added. "That's kind of a big deal, and we're fresh out of Nixons."

Plus, in light of the fact that Democrats will almost certainly be fielding their own heir apparent in 2016—who, as Wilson says, comes from a political family Republicans view on par with the Lannisters—Jeb's own heredity seems less concerning.

Jeb has plenty of high bars to hurdle going into the primaries. Much of the party's right-wing thinks he's a centrist throwback—just look at the deluge of hits Breitbart has put out on him since Tuesday—and he hasn't run a campaign in 14 years. Even if he isn't a boon for the general voting public, W. might be the least of his problems.

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