All of Jeb Bush’s printed material has referred to the White House hopeful as simply “Jeb!” But, judging from his campaign stops this week, he might start using his surname: “Bush!”
The former Florida Governor, who counts a former President as a brother and another as a father, has struggled in this campaign to find a balance between wrapping himself in his family’s dynasty and striking out as his own man. For months, he has said simply that he loves his family but he’s the candidate, not his kin. It was a reasonable answer, but not one that helped him hold onto his one-time frontrunner status.
But as New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary is getting closer, Bush is moving to more prominently feature members of his family and its large political circle. His brother’s Secretary of Homeland Security was sitting in the front row of his town hall in Meredith, New Hampshire, this week. He spoke about his parents’ 71st wedding anniversary, which was Wednesday. The next morning, he said mother Barbara Bush was his favorite Bush.
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Don’t expect Ancestry.com charts at his events any time soon, but also don’t watch for Bush to dodge the genetic and political family tree very hard.
“Michael Chertoff is a patriot,” Bush said at a hotel on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee as the former Bush 43 Cabinet member listened carefully. “He protected the homeland in a really difficult job.”
To be sure, Jeb Bush has a record of his own as a two-term former Governor and longtime policy geek, so it’s natural he wants judged on his own merits and ideas. Bush used Chertoff’s visit to talk about how the two men worked together for disaster relief after hurricanes hit Florida. But the moment was a clear reminder that, yes, this is a Republican family with ties to almost every major powerbroker in the party.
It’s also worth remembering that the last GOP nominee to win a national election was his brother, in 2004. Even with the backdrop of an unpopular war in Iraq and a flailing one in Afghanistan, George W. Bush won re-election. George W. Bush left office in 2009 deeply unpopular but, as happens with most ex-Presidents, he has regained some affinity and Republicans have helped him rehabilitate his polling numbers.
“He’s from such an amazing family. I mean, think about all the things he has seen in his life,” said Erik Olsen, the 41-year-old founder of the Kelsen Brewing Company in Derry, New Hampshire. He is supporting Bush and cannot understand the knock against him because his brother and father have also had the job. “That’s no disadvantage in the real world.”
When Jeb Bush started running, he could not dodge questions about whether he was different than George W. Bush. He struggled with a question about whether invading Iraq was a mistake. He was dogged with questions of political dynasty; were there really only two families in the United States capable of producing a candidate? Even matriarch Barbara Bush clucked that surely there were others who could do the job. “I have enough self-awareness to know that that is an oddity,” Jeb Bush said back in April. “Focusing on the past is not really relevant,” he said later.
But the past offers some guides on how to win, and voters are nostalgic for a time they felt safer. George H.W. Bush repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during the Gulf War, and George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was a masterful warden of a shocked country. They also are some of the sharpest political tacticians in the GOP, and they have surrounded themselves with people who are even smarter.
Jeb Bush is starting to appreciate the skills—and votes—the Georges of House Bush might bring along. He has made a full-on bet in New Hampshire that he can give it a solid run, even if defeating frontrunner Donald Trump is unlikely for any candidate. So he’s bringing up his family in ways that were unthinkable two or three months ago.
When criticizing Trump, Bush nodded to his youth. “I wasn’t brought up that way,” Bush said in Derry on Tuesday.
The next day, a voter here in Meredith asked Jeb Bush if he had spoken to his parents, who were celebrating their 71st wedding anniversary. Yes, the son said. His famously prickly mother was gracious: “She’s gotten all sweet all of the sudden. I’m starting to get nervous.” His father reported they were having a quiet day at home. “We’re watching a mystery movie,” Bush said the 41st President told him. “At 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s very romantic,” the younger Bush mocked.
And on Thursday, unprompted, Bush brought up his lineage in Londonderry, New Hampshire. “I get asked all the time: ‘Well, are you like your brother? Are you like your dad?’” he said, according to the New York Times. “I know there’s a real fascination about this. Let’s just—let me get this out of the way: I love my mother more than my dad.”
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He said his family was blood, and politics was often silly. “I’m blessed to be George and Barbara’s son, and I’m blessed to be George W.’s brother,” he said. “But the world we’re in today is dramatically different than 2000, when my brother got elected, and 2001, when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and the plane went down in Pennsylvania.”
Bush advisers have long held mixed views on how to deal with the question of dynasty, but the candidate himself has been the one to make the sometimes-awkward decision not to decide. In one foreign policy speech, he seemed to make a split with his brother. In an interview on Fox News, he declined to criticize his brother’s handling of Iraq. He shoos away reporters’ questions on the politics of all of this.
Perhaps the late veiled nods to lineage is the best be can do. The Bush compound nearby in Maine gives them some neighborly affection, and Jeb Bush attended prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. Yet George W. Bush lost New Hampshire’s primary in 2000 to upstart John McCain and it’s a sore spot among Bush loyalists from that era. Even so, Establishment-minded Republicans are horrified that Trump is their party's leader at the moment and could rush into the arms of someone who is about as far away from the showman as can be.
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It’s not clear that the other members of the Bush family are rushing to join. Jeb Bush’s sons are part of the mix, sure. But his wife, brother, father and mother are less eager to snag the spotlight. George W. Bush has yet to do public campaign events for his brother, and George H.W. Bush has limited his role to fundraising emails and the occasional call to his friends to urge support for his son.
Barbara Bush passes out bumper stickers to her neighbors in Maine and has plenty of advice for her son in private. But the often-unfiltered matron could be just as troublesome as helpful. She may have gotten “all sweet,” but she’s still a bulldog with little patience for guff. That toughness extends to her son if she thinks he’s disrespecting his roots in one of the greatest Republican family trees in the country.