The Dubya Albatross

When he was performing his Full Jeb of Sunday show interviews over the weekend, Jeb Bush got asked everywhere whether he's running for president, and each time he gave the same practiced answer (not thinking about it yet). He also got asked whether his brother's disastrous presidency, and the fact that Dubya left office with abysmal approval ratings (Gallup had him in the 20s for much of 2008) would be a drag on him. Jeb gave the answer you'd expect: history will be kind to my brother, I'm very proud of him, and so on. Of course it's true that Jeb, what with his last name and all, would have to "grapple" with his brother's legacy more than other candidates. But when we think about it in those terms, I think we overlook something important about how the Bush legacy will continue to operate on Republicans, not just Jeb but all of them.

I thought of this when reading Peter Beinart's take on Jeb, wherein he says something I think misses the mark:

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 even want to try.

The focus on ideas like credibility and pre-empting attacks makes it seem as though this is really an issue of rhetoric and positioning, but it's more than that. Let's go through point by point. Does a Republican need to establish credibility as a deficit hawk? No, because the definition of deficit hawkery is endlessly malleable; Republicans who want to give huge tax cuts to the rich and increase military spending pretend to be deficit hawks just by saying "We need to rein in entitlements," and people in the press believe them. Nobody voted for Barack Obama because they didn't think Mitt Romney was enough of a legitimate deficit hawk. Does the next Republican candidate need to promise foreign-policy competence? Ask Michael Dukakis how important establishing your competence is to winning the White House. And did McCain and Romney lose because they didn't create enough distance between themselves and Bush by not repudiating parts of his legacy?

Ah, here's where it gets tricky. What, exactly, should they have repudiated, or should future Republican presidential contenders repudiate? Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy that helped explode the deficit? His military adventurism? Appointing right-wing judges? Undermining environmental and workplace protections? The trouble is that those things are central to conservative ideology as it exists today. During much of the Bush years, Republicans controlled all three branches of government, and got pretty much everything they had ever wanted. You can tweak Bush's legacy around the edges, but if you don't believe in nearly everything he did, you aren't really a Republican.

This reminds me of a terrific piece this magazine ran about the Iraq War in the fall of 2005 by Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias called "The Competence Dodge." Their argument was that while the Bush administration was most certainly screwing up the war, even if they had been more competent, it would only have made a small difference. The problem wasn't the details of the execution; the problem was that invading Iraq was a terrible idea. The same is true of the Bush administration more broadly. Yes, they screwed some things up. But on the whole, the problems sprang from their goals. The people who run for the Republican nomination in 2016 are going to share those goals, and the Democrats will once again say "You just want to take us back to the Bush years." That will be true whether any of them are named Bush or not.

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