The first obstacle to Jeb Bush’s ambition to be President of the United States is his surname. Hence this week’s foreign policy speech, in which he declared: “I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man.”
It is a mark of how different politics is in the US from any other rich democracy that the American people face the prospect of a Clinton-Bush election next year, 24 years after they last had to choose between those same two names. More than that, it is entirely possible that the Americans could elect the third member of the same family to its highest office in the space of a generation. It makes Ed Miliband’s competition with his brother seem positively meritocratic by comparison.
Just as with the Miliband brothers, however, there are two dimensions to the family connection. One is the policy association; the other is the implied dynasticism. Mr Miliband dealt with the first problem by conveniently associating himself with the rival Labour Party faction. He was a Brownite; his brother was a Blairite. He was (albeit in private) opposed to the Iraq war; his brother voted for it.
Jeb Bush does not have this option. He is bound to pay his respects to the presidential records of his father and his brother. That includes his brother’s decision to invade Iraq 12 years ago. That may not be seen as quite such a toxic disaster by American public opinion as it is seen over here, but it is a negative. Jeb has said that his brother made “a mistake” by not providing security for Iraqis after the invasion, but then, if he is to run against Hillary Clinton, he would be running against a candidate who also supported the war.
As for Jeb’s position within his party, he is on the same centrist wing as his father and brother – although it takes some effort of memory to recall George W Bush’s early branding as a “compassionate” conservative. But both Georges were schools reformers, George W more famously as governor of Texas; George HW with his federal programme (which prompted Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democratic Senator for California, to comment when Jeb announced he was running: “Now we know what the Bush family means by ‘No Child Left Behind’.”).
The results of Jeb’s charter schools in Florida, where he was governor from 1999 to 2007, have been mixed, but mixed neutral to good. He is liberal on immigration, and he is the Republican Party’s best hope of countering the Democrats’ advantage with the growing Hispanic electorate. His wife Columba is Hispanic; he speaks fluent Spanish; and he once said: “As the father of Hispanic kids, you become far more sensitive to disparities – kids who look like your kids not getting the skills they need or getting into the right colleges.”
It must be suspected that, were it not for his surname, Jeb would be further ahead of his colourless rivals (principally Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, now that Mitt Romney has come to his senses and withdrawn). Yet, however peculiar the hold of just two families is on the American state, his name should not count against him.
He did not choose to be born a Bush. Hillary, of course, did choose to add Bill’s surname to her own, long before he became governor of Arkansas. But neither Jeb nor Hillary should have their names held against them. If they are the best candidates their parties can field, and there are good reasons to think so in each case, let them run.Reuse content