If Jeb Bush is elected to the presidency in 2016, his victory will officially transformed the Bushes into the most successful political dynasty in American history. Never has a single direct family line produced three presidents (the Adamses, Harrisons, and Roosevelts each yielded only two), and polls have consistently found that grassroots Republicans are as disturbed by this prospect as ordinary Americans.
As such, one of Bush’s main goals during his announcement of candidacy yesterday was to establish himself as his own man. Did he succeed?
No, he did not. Here are the four biggest reasons why.
1) He evaded the dynasty issue
The following is an actual quote from Bush’s speech:
“Not a one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative.”
Did you notice, while reading that sentence, that one of those things was unlike the others? In a single breath, Bush lumped legitimate claims to the presidency—one’s job qualifications (“resume”), earned status as a leader (“seniority”), and ability to overcome racial and/or socioeconomic oppression (“family narrative”)—in the same category as “family,”as in the Bush dynasty.
Even his reference to voters who vote straight ticket Republican or Democrat (“party”) was dishonest. While partisan voting is unfortunate, it at least has precedent in this country. Electing three presidents from a single dynasty, on the other hand, would be something altogether new.
Indeed, Bush tiptoed around the dynastic issue throughout his speech. Not only did he fail to directly address it at any point in the address, but he only mentioned his own last name twice: once to praise his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and again to name-drop his children and grandchildren.
Ignoring the implications of his election might have worked if a long gap separated his presidency from those of the other Bushes (e.g., in the same way that 24 years separated the two Adams and Roosevelt presidencies, or 48 years separated the two Harrison administrations), but by the time Americans cast their ballots in November 2016, they will have lived through three Bush presidencies in less than three decades.
His lineage is not an incidental detail, and his unwillingness to directly address the matter only makes it more problematic.
2) The Internet has had a field day ripping on his silly campaign logo
Great campaign logos can be iconic, from William Henry Harrison’s legendary “log cabin campaign” in 1840 to Barack Obama’s stylized sunrise in 2008. Not surprisingly, the most noteworthy detail about Bush’s new logo is that it doesn’t include his last name, representing yet another attempt to avoid the dynasty issue instead of openly acknowledge it.
Unfortunately for him, it has also proved memorable for another unflattering reason—namely, how quickly it became a joke on Twitter.
“Jeb has been using essentially the same logo—with the exclamation point—for 20 years,” observed Alfred Maskeroni of AdWeek. Indeed, Bush even went so far as to file paperwork to trademark the logo in 2002. In light of the flurry of ridicule it has received, he may have reason to regret that decision. The commentary speaks for itself.
3) He said nothing new
Forget about distinguishing himself from his father and brother. If Bush really wanted his speech to make a splash, he would have said something to distinguish himself from his fellow Republicans.
Instead, he uttered platitudes like this:
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
“We will take Washington—the static capital of this dynamic country—out of the business of causing problems.”
He also talked about his willingness to stand up to teachers’ unions:
“I think parents are better suited to make decisions about their children’s education than union leaders.”
My bad, that was actually a quote from one of Chris Christie’s speeches. Here was what Bush actually said:
“We will take the power of choice away from the unions and bureaucrats and give it back to parents.”
There. A completely different statement.
Of course, like every Republican since the Gilded Age, Bush extolled the virtues of free market capitalism and devoted considerable time to denouncing special interest groups, advocating government deregulation of business, and accusing the Obama administration of weakening America through its foreign policy, all themes that have been staples of Republican campaign rhetoric since the 20th century.
While it’s understandable that he would echo the same economic talking points as other Republican candidates, he failed to offer any reasonably detailed proposals on how he would go about doing these things.
4) He pandered to the worst aspects of the Christian Right
Like John McCain and Mitt Romney before him, Jeb Bush is in the unenviable position of having a socially moderate reputation in a party where the Christian Right has considerable power. In what was no doubt an effort to shore up his flagging support among religious conservatives, Bush stuffed his speech with tone-deaf appeals to people of faith.
In addition to an awkward attack on Obamacare on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Bush went after Obama’s much-discussed comments on the Crusades:
“It’s still a mystery to me why, in these violent times, the president a few months ago thought it relevant at a prayer breakfast to bring up the Crusades. Americans don’t need lectures on the Middle Ages when we are dealing abroad with modern horrors committed by fanatics.”
This is a bizarre double standard. Conservatives have often referred to America’s various conflicts in the Middle East as “crusades,” with George W. Bush himself using that term shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, while professing the belief that “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.” Unintentionally or not, his statement was the same justification Christians used to invade the Holy Land during the Crusades.
By contrast, Obama’s breakfast speech only mentioned the Crusades as an example that those who share his Christian faith should avoid “get[ting] on our high horse” by remembering that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He continued, “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
At best, Bush’s selective memory shows that he’s unafraid to pander to religious intolerance if it can get him nominated. But even worse, it reminds us of some of the more unsavory aspects of his record. In 1995, Jeb Bush’s book, Profiles in Character, advocated public shaming for single mothers, and according to the Week’s Paul Waldman, those views likely affected his policymaking: “Bush did not object when his legislature passed a law requiring that pregnant women who wanted to put their babies up for adoption but were not sure of the father’s identity had to publish a list of their sexual partners in the newspaper.”
Since the days of George H. W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, the Bush family has risen to power by towing the party line. All signs indicate that Jeb Bush is planning on doing the same thing, and if he wants to be known simply as “Jeb!”, he’ll need to finally distinguish himself from the pack.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Photo via World Affairs Council of Philadelphia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)