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The media is ignoring this telling Jeb Bush gaffe

Jeb stares into the abyss.
Jeb stares into the abyss.
Fox News
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Update: Coverage of the second GOP debate.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower once famously said of George Bush Sr., "He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." There has never been a better illustration of that attitude in the Bush family than this verbal slip-up Jeb Bush made in last night's Republican presidential debate, when challenged by Fox News moderator Bret Baier to address "the real concern in this country about dynastic politics":

I've got a record in Florida. I'm proud of my dad, and I'm certainly proud of my brother. In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it.

Jeb is called Jeb because his name is John Ellis Bush, a name given to him by George H. W. and Barbara Bush. He is claiming that he "earned" something that was literally bestowed upon him by his parents. In hindsight, he probably meant to use the "earned" line later in his answer, where he bragged about being known as "Veto Corleone" because of his 2,500 line-item vetoes of spending programs. But intentional or not, it's not a very compelling way to rebut concerns about dynastic politics.

More than a bungled answer, this seems to be a genuine blind spot. Just before Nameghazi, Bush contended that he faces "a higher bar" as a presidential aspirant due to his family connections, when the reality — obvious to anyone but a member of his immediate family — is that there's no way an ex-governor who left office in 2007 would be leading in fundraising or endorsements absent a vast political network bequeathed to him by his father and brother. Just ask George Pataki.

The rest of his answer was a rote recitation of some highlights from his tenure as Florida governor: tax cuts and balanced budgets every year, expanded fiscal reserves, a AAA bond rating, the spending vetoes, 1.3 million jobs created. Sure, fine. But how exactly does this set him apart from his brother?

Jeb Bush put zero distance between himself and his brother

George W. Bush signs his 2001 round of tax cuts

You know who else signed tax cuts?

White House / Paul Morse

After all, Jeb's brother passed big tax cuts, both as president and as governor of Texas, too. Of course Jeb balanced the budget; that's literally a constitutional requirement in Florida. Jeb could not legally submit or sign into law a budget that wasn't balanced.

The spending vetoes aren't a differentiating factor either; the federal government doesn't have a line-item veto whereby presidents can excise specific provisions from budgets. And the jobs brag, if anything, ties him more closely to his brother. For six of Jeb's eight years in office, his brother was president, and one could plausibly argue that George had more effect on the economy of Florida than Jeb did.

Contrast this with what Jeb could've said if he really wanted to differentiate himself from his brother. He could have said that the Iraq war was misconceived and that the US shouldn't engage in nation-building efforts like it in the future. He could have denounced his brother's torture regime. He could have argued that his brother's administration was too lax on Wall Street and embraced reforms like those his primary opponent Rick Perry and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) have promoted. He could have denounced No Child Left Behind as a failed experiment in federal control over education. He could have criticized his brother's Civil Rights Division for hacking away at the right to vote.


Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense and World Bank President and current Jeb adviser.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But he can't do any of that. He has already gotten into trouble for goofing and saying that he would've invaded Iraq even knowing what we know now, before clarifying and saying he would've invaded knowing what we knew then, which is still pretty bad. He has also surrounded himself with advisers from his brother's administration, including dyed-in-the-wool neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Paula Dobriansky (not to mention former NSA director and surveillance proponent Michael Hayden).

He can't distance himself from his brother on education because he's also a fervent proponent of an accountability agenda and federally promoted standards. He can't attack his brother on financial regulation because he's heavily reliant on Wall Street for campaign cash. He can't criticize his brother on voting rights because he restricted early voting and purged voter rolls as governor of Florida, and has supported voter ID laws.

Those aren't the only possible lines of differentiation, of course. He could have attacked his brother's administration for spending too much and for adding a costly entitlement in the form of Medicare Part D. He could have lambasted the handling of Hurricane Katrina, comparing it with his widely praised handling of hurricanes in Florida during his tenure. Neither of those contradicts past positions Jeb has taken — and Jeb has even mildly criticized his brother's spending record already.

But when Baier handed him a perfect opportunity to make that contrast again, he refused.

The campaign of brotherly love

'Til death do us part

The Bushes, in a row.

Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

"When you love someone or your brother or your dad, it’s not easy for me to throw them under the bus to make myself look better," Bush said in an interview in June. "I just can’t do that."

In a joint interview with his brother in 2010, he went further: "I am the only Republican that was in office when he was in office as president that never disagreed with him. And I’m not going to start now. 'Til death do us part."

It's a nice familial sentiment. But Bush fatigue is real, and Jeb has to find a way to acknowledge his brother's screw-ups if he's going to have any hope of beating it.

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