In the Q&A period following a quasi-campaign speech in Detroit, Jeb Bush said that not only does he love his father and his brother, but that George W. Bush was "a great president." It struck me, immediately, as a telling gaffe that reflects a fundamental impediment to Bush's presidential aspirations. He can hardly distance himself from his own brother, but everyone knows that Americans hate George W. Bush, who left office with approval ratings in the toilet.
Then I looked it up:
As measured by Gallup, Bush's approval ratings have enjoyed a mammoth revival. Being out of the day-to-day partisan fray helps all ex-presidents, and Bush probably also benefits from the polarization dynamics around Barack Obama. He left office with many detractors on the right as well as the left, but the experience of watching a Democrat in office is reminding Republicans of why they liked him in the first place — his approval rating among Republicans is now a very solid 88 percent.
And even though hard-core movement conservatives have a serious beef with Papa Bush, rank-and-file Republicans don't share it — George H.W. Bush earns the approval of 89 percent of Republicans, along with 62 percent of Independents, and a very healthy 44 percent of Democrats.
The dynamic between the Bush family and conservatives is a bit like one of those really bad relationships where you keep swearing you're done for good only to come crawling back a week later.
When he left office, the right was furious at Papa Bush for betraying them on taxes. So much so that they reconstructed all of conservative politics around the idea — not adhered to by Ronald Reagan or anyone else — that no taxes should ever be increased under any circumstances. Then just eight years later, they turned to his son. And they loved him! Except by the time he left office, conservatives swore that they'd been betrayed by Dubya — who always insisted on low taxes, but was more than willing to throw some money around for a Medicare expansion, No Child Left Behind, bank bailouts, or whatever.
So they remade their ideology all over again, this time around a series of dogmas about the urgent need to cut spending to avert fiscal crisis.
The new message
But now Republicans love both Bushes again, by more or less equal measure. The austerity message didn't work in 2012 and feels obsolete with the economy improving. So they're pivoting, somewhat oddly, to new ideas about inequality and opportunity.
And naturally enough, they're turning back yet again to a Bush! Where Papa had "a thousand points of light" and Brother had "compassionate conservatism," Jeb has the right to rise. "The recovery has been everywhere but in American paychecks," he said in Detroit, and "the American Dream has become a mirage for far too many. So the central question we face here in Detroit and across America is this: Can we restore that dream, that moral promise, that each generation can do better?"
Obviously, that's no guarantee that Jeb will prevail in the primary. There are a lot of good candidates out there, and Jeb has some well-known vulnerabilities on the issues. But while a little while ago it looked like the Bush Brand was a mixed blessing — helping Jeb with name recognition and fundraising, but also tarnishing him with his brother's failures — now it just looks like a blessing.
Republicans are very open to the idea of getting back together with the Bushes one more time and hoping it works out.