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Let's not get nostalgic about Jeb Bush

Is it my turn now?
Is it my turn now?
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The pathos of the Jeb Bush presidential campaign has, in the wake of the candidate's departure from the scene, begun to generate an entirely unwarranted sense of Bush nostalgia.

Seth Stevenson, for example, writes in Slate that "Jeb Bush Was Not a Joke" and that his concession speech "felt like a last stand" — not just for the candidate, but "for the tattered legacy of the Bush family" and even "for the quaint notion of civility in public life."

The one thread of truth here is that Jeb was not a joke. He was a money-in-politics juggernaut armed by Wall Street with ungodly sums and given the mission to be the kind of president his brother was, which is to say a terrible one.

George W. Bush was a really awful president

One key reason Jeb stumbled as a candidate is that from basically any perspective other than that of a very rich investment banker, his brother — whom Jeb deeply admired — was actually a really bad president. To get a sense of how bad he was, consider Dylan Matthews making the case that he was actually a good president based on the idea that one small foreign aid program he started to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic globally outweighs everything else he did.

It's a cute argument. But the fact remains that Bush's big-picture policymaking was a disaster. Consider:

  • We suffered the largest terrorist attack in American history.
  • The leader of the terrorist group responsible for the attack went uncaptured and unpunished.
  • Instead we invaded another country for no good reason, lost the war, and destabilized the region with consequences that continue to haunt us today.
  • Also North Korea got a nuclear bomb.

On the home front, Bush dealt with rising income inequality by cutting taxes for the rich and deregulating the financial sector. Then the financial sector blew up, and he threw all his free market principles out the window to offer up expensive bailouts. At the same time, his free market principles prevented him from doing anything to combat the threat of climate change. And despite the bailouts, we had the worst recession in decades with Bush leaving office as the only president to preside over net job losses since World War II.

Jeb was a lucky, undistinguished governor peddling nonsense

Jeb Bush did not differ from his brother on any noteworthy questions of public policy, either at the time or in retrospect, but he did manage to benefit from lucky timing that didn't help his brother.

As a consequence of being governor of one of the bubbliest house price bubble states and having left office right at the peak of the bubble, Jeb was able to brag about a great record of economic growth and job creation that contrasted greatly with his brother's terrible record.

It would have said really bad, damning things about the American people if they had fallen for this trick. Taking advantage of lucky timing is par for the course in politics, but in the particular case of Jeb, because his brother was also president at the time, it is really hard for anyone with any kind of basic awareness of recent American history to miss the fact that Jeb's strong economy and W's weak economy were the exact same economy.

Meanwhile, Bush's plan for the future was 4 percent average annual GDP growth — a number he picked at random on a conference call that was backed by no substantive analysis of any kind.

Jeb may have doomed us all to Donald Trump

As of last fall, it was pretty clear that Jeb Bush had nothing to offer the Republican Party. Marco Rubio, who had all the same substantive commitments as Jeb but more political skills, had clearly emerged as the party elite's consensus choice. If Jeb believed at all in the principles and values and institutions he claims to cherish, he should have dropped out and endorsed Rubio months ago.

Instead, he decided that he would be happy to see the Republican Party burn to the ground if he and his family couldn't treat it as their personal possession. In a desperate last-ditch effort to win, Bush's Super PAC decided to take its enormous pile of Wall Street cash and spend nearly all of it attacking John Kasich, Chris Christie, and especially Rubio, on the theory that if they could destroy all the plausible establishment-friendly candidates, then Jeb would win the nomination by default. As Stephen Hayes wrote in the Weekly Standard, "Trump has had few better allies than Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush's candidacy."

In defense of himself, Jeb always maintained that he could not personally control what Right to Rise did with its money. But that's not true. He could have stopped the Super PAC from spending money attacking Rubio, Kasich, and Christie by dropping out of the race. Instead, he stayed in and delayed consolidation of the field until a point where it may be too late. And he did so for entirely selfish reasons.

That's the legacy of the Bush family — foreign catastrophe and economic ruin courtesy of W, and the rise of Trump courtesy of Jeb.