“I will actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.” Well, that didn’t take long. Some months after denying that he would make a tilt at the presidency, an announcement occasioned by the disendorsement of his mother, Barbara Bush, Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, brother of George W., son of George H.W., has announced that he is looking into it, which these days means finding your birth certificate. Of course it means that he has already explored the options and concluded that his potential competition in the Republican field is so weak, not to say absent, that he would rapidly become the candidate presumptive.
The announcement has been met in the United States not with delight, nor with dismay, but with a sort of resignation that has now become long-suffering. The utter ossification of the American political system has been something the punditry and the political elite have been desperate to ignore, because it would interrupt the breathless reporting of gaffes. But with the very real prospect of a Bush v Clinton 2016 presidential race the whole thing will have to be done in plain sight — all the stuff about journeys to power and how anyone can become president, etc, etc, exposed. Clinton’s election would at least be of someone of an ordinary background, and great talents, who happened to be married to an earlier president; Jeb’s election would turn the Bushes into the first White House hat trick, beating out the Adamses — John and John Quincy — the Harrisons – William Henry and Benjamin — and, fairly distant cousins, the Roosevelts.
That is all the more remarkable when you consider how disastrous the Bushes have been. George H.W. handled the Gulf War with some efficiency, was a bystander as the Berlin Wall fell, and was incapable of dealing with the sharp recession that developed in 1990 and eventually turfed him from power. George W. reversed Papa’s one major success and sank the economy altogether. It was George W.’s catastrophic record that had all but convinced Jeb that a run was now out of the question, the brand being too trashed. Sad to say, it appears to be the poor image of the Obama era that has convinced him that the stain might have been covered over by the poor reception (among many) of Obamacare and the nonsensical belief that Bush’s depression was Obama’s fault. The rise of Islamic State has allowed Bush’s boosters to portray the Iraq War as finally won by “the surge”. History will still see the George W. Bush administration as a three-point disaster, but in recent history he’s looking better to many.
“He could do it. He has the home-ground advantage in Florida, and if he could hit the right note — sort of “we used to be better than this, let’s all come together” — and tie Hillary to Obama, not Bill, well that might be good enough …”
And for the Republican machine core, Jeb Bush looks great when compared to the other potential runners. At the moment, the potential Republican candidate who gets the highest personal score is Mitt Romney, which is the best way those polled have of saying “none of the above”. The party knows that if Romney were somehow to get back onto the ticket, he would lose exactly the same key swing states he lost last time — albeit with a range of new and exciting gaffes. His other rival for the centre, Chris Christie, would appear to be all but finished, his image as the tubby, avuncular good guy damaged by two of his staffers’ use of engineered traffic jams to punish a New Jersey mayor who was a Democrat. He added to that with a hack at the wave of minimum wage activism sweeping the states — something that many Republican voters support — and that added to his other gaffes (some of which are simple plain speaking. He lost the support of GOP megabacker Sheldon Adelson when he referred to the “Occupied Territories” — he should of course have spoken of Israel, one and indivisible). Christie, rational on matters such as the age of the earth and mentioning evolution in textbooks, was always going to have trouble getting past the Right. Without the centre, he’s dead in the water.
On the Right, various candidates are trying out different combinations of the crazy to see if there’s any that might plot them a path through a divided field. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has taken it upon himself to be the Republican anarchist , urging a ceaseless war against the White House , relentlessly oppositional in every respect (Cruz called Obama’s push for net neutrality “Obamacare for the internet”). At the other end of the Right, Rand Paul is trying to come up with a remix that combines free-market economics and a radical cut in government with a standing down of militarised police, a relaxation of drug laws, and an attack on the US’ prison gulag system. In the middle of that there are a whole lot of maybes — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a union-busting hero, Marco Rubio from Florida, who would appear to be sitting things out for another eight years or so, and a new entrant, Ben Carson, whose story of struggle from black Detroit to a distinguished career as a neurosurgeon is spoilt a little by his extreme Christian fundamentalism and his penchant for comparing Obama to a Nazi.
How would a Jeb run appear among all of that? The weird thing is that he would be the candidate of the centre of the field in some ways, as some of Rand Paul’s policies would jump to the Left of him — and to the left of Clinton, come to that. Jeb — we’re now faced with the first first-name presidential election — has always staked out a more pro-immigration position, and has a base within the Hispanic community, as former governor of Florida. That would 1) help him immensely in the election, as Hispanics were once majority Republican voters and need to be persuaded back; and 2) would make it much harder for him to get the nomination, given the anti-immigrant mood in the Grand Old White Party. In the process of getting the nomination, Jeb would have to say all sorts of “build-a-big-Mexican-wall” nonsense for the Tea Party, which would turn up as overdubbed ads on Spanish TV across the country.
Still, he could do it, he could do it. He has the home-ground advantage in Florida, and if he could hit the right note — sort of “we used to be better than this, let’s all come together” — and tie Hillary to Obama, not Bill, well that might be good enough to get Ohio and Virginia, as well, and with a couple of others, that might be a narrow victory. And if he were selected and lost, the GOP would fold in on itself like an undercooked souffle. Either way, what Americans would be exploring in a Jeb v Hillary election is how democracies die.