On five talk shows Sunday morning, Jeb Bush reminded America why he’ll never be president: it’s hard to distance yourself from your own last name.
“I don’t think there’s any Bush baggage at all,” the former Florida governor said on Fox News Sunday. “I love my brother. I’m proud of his accomplishments.” On Meet the Press, he added that “history will be kind to George W. Bush.”
Unfortunately for Jeb, history is written by historians. Three times since 2009, pollsters have asked them to rank American presidents, and in those rankings, W. has come in 36th, 39th, and 31st. Only Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan rank lower. Ordinary Americans agree. Three times since George W. Bush left office, pollsters have asked the public to rank recent presidents. And three times, W. has ended up second to last, ahead of only Richard Nixon.
It’s no exaggeration to say George W. Bush is more responsible than any other single individual for the Republican Party’s current dismal standing. When Bush took office, about as many Americans identified as Republicans as identified as Democrats. By the time he left, Democrats enjoyed a roughly 10-point lead. When Bush took office, Americans ages 18 to 29 were split evenly between the two major parties. By the time he left, Democrats enjoyed an advantage of 19 points. To grasp how excited Democrats would be to run a Clinton against a Bush in 2016, you need only remember that Bill Clinton gave the strongest speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, while at the 2012 Republican convention, George W. Bush didn’t speak at all.
That’s why Jeb Bush will never seriously challenge for the presidency—because to seriously challenge for the presidency, a Republican will have to pointedly distance himself from Jeb’s older brother. No Republican will enjoy credibility as a deficit hawk unless he or she acknowledges that George W. Bush squandered the budget surplus he inherited. No Republican will be able to promise foreign-policy competence unless he or she acknowledges the Bush administration’s disastrous mismanagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. It won’t be enough for a candidate merely to keep his or her distance from W. John McCain and Mitt Romney tried that, and they failed because the Obama campaign hung Bush around their neck every chance it got. To seriously compete, the next Republican candidate for president will have to preempt that Democratic line of attack by repudiating key aspects of Bush’s legacy. Jeb Bush would find that excruciatingly hard even if he wanted to. And as his interviews Sunday make clear, he doesn’t event want to try.