Political dynasties: Bush the third?

First there was George H, then there was George W. Now brother Jeb may become the next member of the clan to step forward as a presidential contender. David Usborne reports
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These have not been easy days for Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. Several of his most prized policy proposals were shot down in flames last week by the state legislature, casting him as a lame-duck leader, while his newest flap is about an approaching US Senate race that his party is all but certain to lose.

Complicating matters was the prospect of a visit to Orlando earlier this week by his elder brother, George, the President. Reporters would be lobbing questions about the Senate race mess and also about his own next move - he is approaching the end of his second term as Governor and can't run again.

Jeb, 53, has been sticking determinedly to his text about having seven months still to go before relinquishing his post and lots more work to do. Until his brother opened his mouth in a group interview with Florida reporters on Wednesday evening.

It was during a stopover in St Petersburg that the President chose to plant the idea - not exactly for the first time - that his younger sibling should be thinking about higher political office when he leaves the Governor's mansion in Tallahassee next January. He should be thinking about the White House. "I think Jeb would be a great president. But it's up to Jeb to make a decision to run," the President declared. "He is an extraordinary person who has proven his capacity as a political figure ... In my judgement, his political future is very bright if he chooses to have a political future."

The President hinted that Jeb making a run in 2008 has been the subject of family conversations. "I have no idea what he's gong to do," he said. "I've asked him that question myself. I truly don't think he knows." He added he has "pushed him fairly hard about what he intends to do".

The Governor, who was on the other side of the state at the time attending a hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale, was obliged on Wednesday night to repeat his ritual denials. We are still to believe, therefore, that he will return to private life, which probably means wheeling and dealing in Miami. His first response was in Spanish, which he speaks fluently. "I love my brother," he said with a broad, perhaps mildly embarrassed, smile. "His words were very beautiful. But I am not thinking of running for president. I aspire to be the best governor possible until the end of my mandate."

In English, he made the point more clearly, additionally trying to lay to rest rumours that he may himself step into the breach to seek the Senate seat. "I'm not running for president, I'm not running for United States Senate. I'm not going to run." Then he asked: "Why doesn't everyone believe me on this?"

It is true that the notion of President Jeb refuses to go away. His elder brother sparked the first round of speculation at the beginning of last year when he dispatched Jeb to South-east Asia to visit areas devastated by the tsunami along with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The idea, some said, was to build up the Governor's international credentials.

Then it was the turn of his father, the first President George Bush, who said during an interview with CNN's Larry King that Jeb would be "awfully good" as president. "This guy's smart, big and strong. Makes the decisions." It is well known that when Bush senior used to wonder about which of his offspring would follow him into the White House, it was Jeb he initially thought of, not George.

Of course, the dynastic quality of a putative Jeb-for-President run also piques the media's interest greatly. It would be the first time in the history of the country that two brothers have assumed the office of Commander-in-Chief. And, by the way, while George is the 43rd President, Jeb is the 43rd Governor of Florida. The idea that Jeb should become 44th President, therefore, has a sort of quaint mathematical appeal.

The scenario is even more intriguing because of the parallel dynastic dance going on in the Democratic camp. Few now doubt that Hillary Clinton will win re-election to the US Senate in New York later this year, or that she will seek her party's nomination for president in two years' time.

In fact, it was President Bush himself who recently quipped - presumably he meant it as a joke - that the way things were going, the roll-call of contemporary American presidents could run "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton."

With Jeb added to the mix, it could become, "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Bush." Or even, "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Bush". America might give us Clintons and Bushes ad nauseam.

Seen like that, the Jeb-for-Prez plan may seem like overkill by the Bush family. It caused some Democrats to chortle with delight yesterday and even some Republicans to release quiet groans. "It doesn't do President Bush any good to talk about it," one Republican consultant suggested while remaining anonymous. Because of sheer Bush fatigue, the idea may therefore be a non-starter.

But if the idea won't die entirely, it may be Jeb himself who is to blame. He does have his problems at the moment. The likely Republican candidate for the Senate seat is Katherine Harris, who played a key part in the struggle for Florida in the vote-counting mess of the 2000 election. She was accused by some of tipping the field in favour of George Bush, who took the state by a margin of just 537 votes.

A deeply polarising figure, she is running a campaign beset by problems and mini-scandals. On Monday, Jeb Bush himself said she was doomed to defeat when the state votes in November.

Nor could the Governor hide his disappointment earlier this month when the Republican-controlled state legislature rebelled, rejecting portions of his plans for a roll-back in property taxes and for changes in the state constitution to allow parents to choose schools for their children.

But by most reckonings, he has proved an effective and also well-liked governor of the Sunshine State. He was elected for a second term in 2002 by an even larger margin than when he first won the office in 1998. In fact, Jeb is on course to become one of the very few governors in Florida's history to serve two full terms - the first Republican to do so.

It is that popularity that is so appealing to Republicans right now. While the President's approval ratings are notching down towards a miserable 30 per cent mark - touching levels where his father bottomed out before him - Jeb's poll results are achieving numbers that consistently reach 55 per cent or higher.

It may be Jeb's personality as much as his conservative politics that has given him enduring appeal. He is popular with Florida's large Cuban community as well as with most non-Cuban Hispanics in part because of his fluency in Spanish. His wife, Columba, is originally Mexican. They met at a motorcycle race in Leon, Mexico, when Bush was teaching English on a student exchange. Meanwhile, he has nurtured the many Jewish retirees who have migrated to Florida by taking up a robust position on Israel.

With his marriage to Columba, Bush converted to Catholicism, a move which has informed some of his political leanings. On abortion, the Governor is firmly pro-life. He also made international headlines two years ago when he passed a law in Florida aimed at preventing the husband of a woman in a chronic coma - Terri Schiavo - from removing her from life support. In the end, the courts overruled the Governor and Ms Schiavo was indeed allowed to die.

For Republican Party strategists there is something else important about Jeb, of course. And that would be Florida itself. As recent history has shown, winning the state can be crucial to a successful run for the White House. Most political observers, for instance, believe Hillary Clinton would have a hard task cracking the state. With Jeb as their candidate, the Sunshine State would be far easier to bag.

But none of this may matter. The Governor may mean it when he says he does not want to run for office again. As a financier and property developer in Miami through the Eighties and early Nineties, he has turned himself into a millionaire several times over. He may also take seriously those will simply say: "Enough Bush already!"

The wisdom of Jeb

"There may have been isolated cases where supervisors of the election didn't have the right lists or something like that. But in general, I don't think there was any concerted effort to take away people's right to vote."

On the Florida election chaos that helped Bush win in 2000

"I have absolutely no doubt that the death warrants I have signed have been for people who were justly sentenced for the crime they committed."

On the death penalty

"The surest way to get something in today's society is to elevate one's status to that of the oppressed. Many of the modern victim movements - the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, the black empowerment movement - have attempted to get people to view themselves as part of a smaller group deserving of something from society."

On civil rights

"A good, common-sense, anti-crime issue."

On allowing residents to shoot intruders

"It looks like the people of San Francisco are an endangered species, which may not be a bad thing. That's probably good news for the country."

On the people of San Francisco

"I don't see how I help George by having a high profile nationally. In fact, I see the opposite."

On brother George


Jay Leno:

"Rumour is that President Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, may run for president. Rumour is? According to Florida voting machines, he's already won."

David Letterman:

"Jeb Bush says he wants to be president. Well, that's good - somebody will have to pardon his brother."

Jerome Taylor