Though we have just entered 2015, and the Iowa caucuses are still a year away, a few major events have already shaken up the 2016 presidential primaries.
We have seen the return of several old names to the national conversation. Most surprisingly, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was briefly the subject of speculation regarding a third presidential bid. He ended that discussion himself last week, saying that despite the encouragement of supporters, he felt it was time for the next generation of conservative leadership to step up to the plate. Though it must have been difficult for him to set aside his own ambitions, Romney did so for the good of the Republican Party and the country.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has made his interest in the White House clear. He’s organized a political action committee, is lining up staff, donors, and supporters, and is making speeches to start laying out his vision and plan. Rather than launching his own bid, Bush should take the lead from Romney and sit this one out.
Though he himself has never run for president before, Jeb Bush carries the baggage of one who has. Fair or not, he will inevitably be linked back to the administrations of his father and brother. Comparisons will be made, and the entire Republican Party will be forced into an intense discussion of the Bush family legacy. Such a conversation, rather than being unifying, will be divisive, both for the party and the country.
Instead of relitigating the battles of the Bush years, the GOP must move forward. The Republican nominee must be prepared to counter the Clinton legacy, and we must do so by offering a new direction. Even though it’s not through any fault of his own, Jeb Bush is unlikely to be accepted as the public face of a new direction by the electorate.
It’s not just his family’s legacy that makes Bush a less than fresh face. He’s been out of office for eight years now, and in that time he’s largely stayed below the radar. He hasn’t switched to being a commentator or run for office again himself. Indeed, the last time Jeb Bush ran for office was in 2002, before Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones. It was only a year after the September 11 attacks, and his brother’s popularity was near its all-time high. The invasion of Iraq had yet to occur; Bush has never had to campaign under that shadow.
The national political environment was starkly different 13 years ago, even in the GOP itself. The conflict within the party was between the diehard social conservatives and the establishment; the libertarian movement that has made Rand Paul a national name was hardly a factor. George W. Bush was able to effectively bridge the gap between social conservatives and moderates. Even if Jeb Bush is able to accomplish the same, it won’t be as big a help to him, because that’s not what’s dividing the party now.
None of this is to say that the GOP should completely abandon the Bush family: the party just should not chain itself to that legacy. We should choose a nominee who can pick and choose the better parts of the Bush legacy but believably abandon other elements.
Romney was, indeed, right, and not just about about Russia. He was also right about what the GOP needs in 2016. The question is, will Bush listen?