“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.” ~ George W. Bush
Do we really want a third President Bush? That would be being fooled a third time.
The first President Bush lasted one term. When competing with Reagan for the Republican Party presidential nomination for that 1980 election, George H. W. Bush sneered at Reagan’s amazing new supply-side policies, calling them “voodoo economics” – but he gave in. Reagan rewarded him for that by making him his vice president – sometimes you just have to embrace nonsense, and everyone in the party sided with Reagan on these matters. The math was questionable, but Bush embraced the voodoo to win the Republican nomination in 1988, because folks love crazy ideas that just might work. Bush became our president that year, but Bush, after buying into the counterintuitive, finally raised taxes, to keep the country solvent. Read My Lips! No New Taxes! He should never have said that. He had known better in the first place, but the counterintuitive is seductive. There would be no second term for him. Many in his party sat out the 1992 election, or voted for Ross Perot, the spoiler that year. Bill Clinton won, with forty-three percent of the vote. No one was happy. The first President Bush is now remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a competent problem-solver. He inspired no one.
The second president Bush ran as a Compassionate Conservative. “It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need,” Bush argued at the time. “It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” And then we got two disastrous wars, of choice, New Orleans disappeared, and the economy collapsed. It took an initial seven hundred billion dollars, which we didn’t have, to save what we could, and we’ve not really recovered yet. We should have seen this coming. This particular Bush just said things. He didn’t even know what the words meant. He didn’t have time for such nonsense – he trusted his gut – and he trusted Jesus too. That’s probably why, in 2008, we elected someone who preferred to use his brain, not his gut, and who also knew what all the words meant, agree with him or not. Government by random instinct, by the let’s-see-what-happens hunch, even if compassionate, perhaps, didn’t work out.
We learned our lesson. The actual saying is “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Being fooled a third time isn’t covered, but this was the day the third Bush made it official:
Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents, formally launched his campaign for the White House on Monday with a sweeping call to reform Washington and expand economic opportunity.
Against a diverse tableau at a boisterous rally here in the state he governed for eight years, Bush offered himself as a compassionate and tested chief executive who would fix a broken federal government and disrupt the country’s political brinkmanship.
“We will take Washington – the static capital of this dynamic country – out of the business of causing problems,” he said. “We will get back on the side of free enterprise and free people. I know we can fix this. Because I’ve done it.”
He has? Never mind, he had his bases covered:
With his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, sitting in the front row, Jeb Bush directly confronted the family history that is both an asset and a liability. His father and brother, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, were not present, but he invoked them by saying that he met his first president the day he was born and his second when he was taken home from the hospital.
Still, he said that he did not believe his lineage should grant him the Republican nomination.
“Not a one of us deserves the job by right of résumé, party, seniority, family or family narrative,” he said. “It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide-open – exactly as a contest for president should be.”
He had to say that, but there’s a backstory. From Joe Hagan’s 2012 piece on Bush in the Wilderness:
Backstage at a theater in Tampa during the GOP convention, the former governor of Florida has shown up to discuss education policy after a screening of the new Maggie Gyllenhaal movie, Won’t Back Down, a drama about a single mother who does a hostile takeover of her failing public school and turns it around – a Jeb Bush fantasy come to life. But he’s got plenty on his mind besides education. Sitting down across from me, he assumes his role as party Cassandra, warning of the day when the Republicans’ failure to tap an exploding Hispanic population will cripple its chances at reclaiming power – starting in Texas, the family seat of the House of Bush.
“It’s a math question,” he tells me. “Four years from now, Texas is going to be a so-called blue state. Imagine Texas as a blue state, how hard it would be to carry the presidency or gain control of the Senate.”
He knew then that he was the only one who could pull it off, but for his family:
Once again, it is impossible to ignore Jeb Bush describing a problem he’s uniquely suited to solve for his party: a popular two-time governor of a Hispanic-heavy state, with a record of improving education for minorities, fluent in Spanish, married to a Latina, and father to two Hispanic sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Jr. By Jeb Bush’s own calculus, Jeb Bush would make a great presidential candidate.
But then there’s all that familiar DNA above the collar line: the identical head of hair as his brother George W., the 43rd president; the same aquiline nose, inherited from his mother, Barbara, whose downturned mouth and pronounced jowls Jeb also shares and which make his face a softer, squarer version of W’s. From the 41st president, the father, the same close-set eyes; the Mount Rushmore–ready forehead; and the mild, patrician air of confidence, handed down to Jeb from Senator Prescott Bush of Greenwich, Connecticut, over 59 years ago.
For all his lightness of being, Jeb Bush carries a heavy burden. After eight years under the presidency of his older brother, the nation was more than ready to see the Bushes exit stage right, maybe forever. A majority of Americans still blame W. for the state of the economy, and pretending Bush disappeared from the face of the Earth has been critical to an attempted Republican Party makeover. Among Republicans in his home state, purified in the fires of the tea-party movement, Bush is persona non grata. “Imagine a world where George Bush is too liberal,” says Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune. “That’s Texas 2012.”
Still, Republicans knew what was going on:
For many in his party and for most of this year, Jeb Bush was the ghost of what might have been. When Romney was spiraling downward, the party was in such dire straits, the thinking went, that the Bush political brand, as battered as it was, looked respectable again. “I believe the Bushes are true north,” says Mark McKinnon, the former aide to the 43rd president, “and we’ve got to get that back.”
For a party with clear fissures, Jeb Bush is an insurance policy against a Romney loss to Barack Obama. Many Republicans believe losing in November would create an epic struggle between the hard right of the party and the moderates who believe that, to win, the GOP has to make a credible effort to court Hispanics. Jeb is the obvious leader of the moderate wing. The people in Jeb’s orbit have been supporting Romney, but with significant reservations because of the extreme positions Romney had to take to secure the nomination. One told me that nobody who decides to build an indoor elevator for their car can get elected in America.
So now, for some, Jeb Bush is not the ghost of what might have been. He’s what should be, and David Frum has called him the Republican Obama:
What can the son and brother of a president, grandson of a senator, and great grandson of the founder of the Walker Cup have in common with the son of a failed Kenyan politician? Look beyond the biography to the psychology.
Jeb Bush will tell you that, thanks to his marriage to his Mexican-born wife, he is bicultural. Here he is speaking at New York’s 92nd Street Y in November 2013:
“I’m bicultural – maybe that’s more important than bilingual. For those who have those kinds of marriages, appreciating the culture of your spouse is the most powerful part of the relationship. Being able to share that culture and live in it has been one of the great joys of my life. We chose Miami to live because it is a bicultural city. It’s as American as any, but it has a flair to it that is related to this bicultural feeling. I wanted my children to grow up in a bicultural way.” …
As Jeb Bush himself notes, there is a Bush family tradition of moving away from the culture into which one is born, to plunge into another. George H. W. Bush, born to a family of Northeastern grandees, reinvented himself as Sunbelt conservative. George W. Bush, born in New Haven, Connecticut, was the only member of the next generation of Bush brothers not born in Texas, and yet became the most Texan of them all. Jeb Bush moved away first from Texas, and then from his family’s patrician identity as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
He even converted to Catholicism. He is a WASP no longer, and it shows:
Jeb Bush’s enthusiasm for immigration, even when the immigrants are unskilled, even if they break the law, goes so deep that he even sometimes ventures to suggest that the personal characteristics of immigrants are to be preferred over those of the native-born. Here for example is an informal Jeb Bush speaking to a friendly interviewer, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, early in 2014. “If we’re going to grow at 4% a year, we have to have young, aspiring people be able to create dynamic activity. And we can’t do that with our existing demographics.”
Bush seems to have something more in mind than just the familiar (if overstated) claim that immigration can counter the aging of the population. He seems to think that there is some quality in the immigrants themselves that is more enterprising – more dynamic to use his favorite term – than native-born Americans. This is not only a positive judgment on the immigrants themselves. It is also a negative judgment on native-born Americans.
That is a dangerous notion in Republican circles, but Jeb is their Barack Obama in many ways:
Both Jeb Bush and Barack Obama are men who have openly and publicly struggled with their ambivalence about their family inheritance. Both responded by leaving the place of their youth to create new identities for themselves: Barack Obama, as an organizer in the poor African-American neighborhoods of Chicago; Jeb Bush in Mexico, Venezuela, and at last in Cuban-influenced Miami. Both are men who have talked a great deal about the feeling of being “between two worlds”: Obama, in his famous autobiography; Bush, in his speeches. Both chose wives who would more deeply connect them to their new chosen identity. Both derived from their new identity a sharp critique of their nation as it is. Both have built their campaign for president upon a deep commitment to fundamental transformation of their nation into what they believe it should be.
Frum seems to think this is a good thing:
Twenty-first century America is a place consumed by issues of identity. More and more Americans identify themselves as “Americans-plus” – fully American, yet also partially something else; in America, but not exclusively defined by their American-ness. An older America expected that people would be all one thing or all another: black or white, male or female, American or foreign. Barack Obama excited a new generation of voters because he – like them – transcended such categories. In this latest scion of the Bush family, of all unlikely persons, the GOP may have found its own candidate for the age of fluidity represented – and accelerated – by the presidency of Barack Obama.
Jeb, in Monday’s announcement, took that and ran with it:
Addressing hundreds of supporters inside a Miami college gymnasium, Bush spoke in aspirational terms about what he called a “nation filled with charitable hearts.” He seemed determined to present a new, welcoming face for the Republican Party, looking as much to the general election as to the primaries.
But he didn’t run far:
Bush focused heavily on his record as Florida’s governor, the office he held between 1999 and 2007. Under his leadership, he said, the state led the nation in job creation, income growth, balanced budgets and tax cuts.
“We don’t need another president who merely holds the top spot among the pampered elites of Washington,” he said. Later, he said, “I was a reforming governor, not just another member of the club.”
As president, he said, he would “think big” about overhauling the tax code, undo Obama-era federal regulations and “get serious about limited government.”
Still, someone heard that bit about charitable hearts:
He had nothing in his prepared remarks about immigration reform, an issue that he has championed for years but which is particularly divisive for die-hard Republican base voters. Only when two dozen protesters stood in the rafters to interrupt him – they stripped off a layer of clothing to reveal neon T-shirts spelling out “Legal status is not enough” – did Bush weigh in on the subject.
“The next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform,” he said, departing from the text in his Teleprompters.
Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham are already lining up against him:
BECK: Do you know who is going to win in a matchup between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush? Hillary Clinton.
BILL O’REILLY: I’m not sure about that.
BECK: Yes, she would.
O’REILLY: Look, I’m not rooting for Jeb Bush.
BECK: Jeb Bush is Hillary Clinton light. [Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor, 3/24/15]
LEVIN: You notice Jeb Bush and his machine, the Bush machine, that’s been in existence since 1976 or even earlier, making demands on the presidency. “One’s enough? No. Two’s enough? No. Now we want three.” Incredible! This has to be fought. And it has to be fought within the family. And it has to be fought within the Republican Party. [Cumulus Media Networks, The Mark Levin Show, 4/9/15]
LEVIN: Levin reacted to a speech Bush gave to a convention of Hispanic evangelicals by writing on Facebook: “When the hell will Jeb Bush speak to American citizens and America’s youth? Instead he is obsessed with endless and dishonest ethnic pandering.” [Facebook.com, 4/29/15]
LIMBAUGH: Bush “Doesn’t Want To Have To Pretend To Be A Conservative” To Win The Primary. … “He doesn’t want to have to sell his soul for the Tea Party vote. What that means is, he doesn’t want to have to pretend to be a conservative at any time during the primary to get the Tea Party or conservative vote. He’s going to win the nomination. He’s not going to pander.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 12/17/14]
LIMBAUGH: So Hillary Clinton, like Jeb Bush, must win the primary some way other than securing the Democrat base, because that is Elizabeth Warren’s. What is the solution to all of this? It’s very simple. The ideal, the perfect ticket for the 2016 election: Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush. Now, they can figure out who’s on top of the ticket on their own. But when you compare their positions, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, on the key important issues, they are two peas in the same pod. And, by the way, Barbara Bush loves Bill Clinton. She says so publicly. George W. Bush has referred to Hillary as a half-sister, long lost whatever, some such thing. The Clinton family and the Bush family are very tight. They are very close. There is never a negative or critical word uttered by a Bush of a Clinton or of a Bush by a Clinton. This is made to order the way both parties want amnesty. Jeb Bush wants it; Hillary wants it. Both parties want to win the nomination, Hillary by running away from the Democrat base, Jeb by running away from the Republican base. This is an ideal combination. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 12/17/14]
INGRAHAM: “Why Don’t We Just Call It Quits? And Jeb And Hillary Can Run On The Same Ticket.” Ingraham said during a speech at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference: “We could dispense with this whole nomination process altogether … Why don’t we just call it quits? And Jeb and Hillary can run on the same ticket. I mean, go through the list of things they agree on: Common Core, amnesty, giving Obama fast-track trade authority, a lot of new trade deals with China, the surveillance culture. So I’m designing the bumper sticker. It could be, Clush 2016: What difference does it make?” [Media Matters, 2/27/15]
This goes on and on. Perhaps if Jeb divorced his Mexican wife and disowned his half-breed children they’d let up, or if his wife were a Cuban exile. Cuban exiles are the “good” Hispanics of course, not the lazy sneaky ones – see Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. But that’s not the case.
The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman is not impressed either way:
Jeb’s first notes as an official candidate sound a lot like his brother’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Let’s be clear about what that means. “Compassionate conservatism” was always light on policy and heavy on image-making. While it’s fashionable for Republicans to now say that George W. Bush wasn’t a “real” conservative because he didn’t cut spending enough, the truth is that he gave conservatives almost everything they wanted: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, slashing regulations, a belligerent foreign policy, right-wing judges, and so on. But he also said nice things about poor people and spent lots of time posing for pictures with African-Americans and Hispanics – hence, “compassion.” His 2004 campaign web site featured a “Compassion Photo Album” that was, I kid you not, just a bunch of photos of George and Laura with black and Hispanic people.
And Jeb is following in those footsteps. … Former Florida governor Jeb Bush released a video ending with the words “Jeb! 2016” … [and] in this video, the four people offering testimonials on Bush’s behalf are an Hispanic immigrant man, the family member of a person with disabilities (also Hispanic), a woman who had been the victim of domestic violence, and a young African-American woman who was the first in her family to graduate college. Only one of them, the African-American woman, is associated with a conservative policy, school vouchers. In the other cases we have no idea what the actual policies were that helped these people, only that they are grateful to Jeb Bush. At the end, he says, “What we need is new leadership that takes conservative principles and applies them so that people can rise up,” but other than that one mention of the word “conservative,” you might not even be sure this is a Republican candidate.
That’s the danger:
Needless to say, this is a stark contrast to the way his opponents are running; the question most of them are trying to answer is how they can show primary voters that they’re the most conservative candidate in the bunch. It’s also a striking departure from the strategy employed four years ago by Mitt Romney, who had a profile similar in many ways to Bush’s, and who like Bush had to win over skeptical conservatives.
At the time, Romney went on a national self-flagellation tour, renouncing his prior beliefs and begging for forgiveness for his past heresies. But Bush now looks like someone who’s already trying to appeal to the general electorate. In another video released today, Bush has a litany of Americans he sees who are “ready” to get on board his train to the future (“children who are ready to learn, entrepreneurs who are ready to innovate,” etc.), and one of the groups he cites are “immigrants who are ready to contribute.” You aren’t going to hear that from Scott Walker.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean Jeb Bush is some kind of moderate – he isn’t, and he isn’t going be claiming to be so in any explicit way. Saying that clearly would be going too far for the primary electorate.
Something else is going on here:
The differences between him and the other candidates on policy are tiny, where they exist at all. But the Bush campaign says he’ll be “showing his heart,” which appears to mean talking to the kind of people his party has spent the last few years trying as hard as they could to alienate. It sounds like someone who’s already looking past the primaries to the general election.
He may not get there, and if he does he’ll just be one more of those modern conservatives, offering his superior moral justification for selfishness. He is the third Bush. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Being fooled a third time isn’t an option anymore.