The 1980 election took place a generation ago – an eternity in politics -- and is remembered as the year Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection. What is less well remembered is that earlier in 1980, in the Democratic convention, Senator Ted Kennedy tried to defeat Carter for renomination. His quest ended shortly after a disastrous television interview during which he could not sensibly answer the question about why he wanted to be president.
I recalled this as I thought of Jeb Bush’s long and ultimately failed quest. The Jeb Bush narrative is deeply intertwined with the Bush family saga.
Poppy, George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, had a 91 percent approval rating after the Gulf War. But his presidency went downhill from there. He pledged no new taxes and incurred the fury of his party when he had to raise them. He got caught by a recession. Ross Perot took votes from him in 1992. He was even victimized by a bogus but certainly damaging claim that he was amazed by grocery store scanner technology, presumably showing that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Two years later two Bush brothers ran for governor, Jeb in Florida and George in Texas. Jeb was supposed to win and George was supposed to lose. When the reverse happened history took a strange turn. Jeb, the anointed one, eventually did get elected governor of Florida in 1998 but it was too late in that cycle for his presidential ambitions. The other brother, reelected in 1998, became the obvious GOP nominee in 2000.
George Bush won controversially in 2000 and matched his father’s 91 percent approval rating after 9-11. But another Bush presidency went downhill, squandered by the 2003 Iraq War disaster. Karl Rove repeated his 1990’s Texas magic with a brilliant 2004 campaign and Bush improbably won reelection. But his presidency ended with the country in economic free-fall and his approval rating at 30 percent, one of the lowest ever.
Brother Jeb, meanwhile, completed two successful terms and, in 2007, entered the private sector, where he did very well. He resisted a call to run for the Senate but felt duty-bound to run for president this year, even though his mother famously said “There are other people out there that are very qualified and we’ve had enough Bushes.”
Jeb got tangled in history’s web. The Bush brand was tarnished. The GOP establishment could not get its act together to say “Jeb’s the guy” and run off the other establishment candidates. Jeb was a fund-raising machine but could not convince ordinary Americans that he had a real passion to be president.
So the Bush presidential dynasty ends, just as the Kennedy presidential dynasty ended 36 years ago. Ted Kennedy’s quest ended because the Kennedy name was not enough. Jeb Bush’s quest ended because the Bush name was too much.