“I love my brother. I think he’s been a great president,” Jeb Bush said yesterday. Such sentiment should not pose political problems for the former Florida governor. That’s simple familial courtesy. Most voters would cut Jeb plenty of slack.
But voters will still want to know, from Jeb or any Republican candidate, how would you be different from George W. Bush?
After all, he was not great. His tax cuts for the wealthy failed to produce growth and create jobs. His unwillingness to patrol Wall Street led to the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression.
In other words, he implemented conservative ideology and it was a disaster.
While the Bush debacle does not disqualify conservatism forevermore, it does demand conservatives prove they learned some lessons from their past failures. Obviously, top-end tax cuts and deregulation were not the magical economic elixirs Bush claimed they would be.
If anyone needs to prove they would not be Bush redux, it is someone whose last name is Bush.
But at his address to the Detroit Economic Club, Jeb not only expressed his love for his brother, he embraced all of his brother’s approach to governing, as well as his brother’s approach to rhetorical packaging.
It may sound novel for a Republican to say “The opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time,” as Jeb did yesterday. But George W. made the same pitch in his June 1999 “compassionate conservative” stump speech, telling Iowans, “The next president must close this gap of hope.”
What has created this gap? Why big liberal government, of course!
Completely ignoring what caused the 2008 crash and the fact that we’ve been picking up the pieces ever since, Jeb launched a tirade on “Washington” as “a company town. And the company is government.”
“For several years now, they have been recklessly degrading the value of work, the incentive to work, and the rewards of work,” said Jeb. “The progressive and liberal mindset believes that to every problem there is a Washington D.C. solution.” The real solution? “I say give Washington less and give states and local governments more.”
This is no different than how George W. campaigned in 1999: “I make decisions based on a conservative philosophy that is ingrained in my heart: Trust local people to make the right decision for schools, cities and counties. Understand that capitalism is the backbone of our free-enterprise system. Always put America and American workers first.”
Jeb pledges his conservative philosophy will produce a robust rate of 4 percent in annual GDP growth. He will need to explain why his brother’s similar philosophy only generated an average annual growth rate of 1.6 percent, with his final quarter producing a loss of 6.2 percent.
Presumably Jeb will offer cracks of daylight between himself and his brother over the course of the campaign, just enough so he can say he is his own man. But the Republican party as a whole needs to fundamentally reckon with the complete failure of the conservative policies that defined the George W. Bush presidency, communicate to the electorate that they know what went wrong and prove they won’t repeat the same mistakes.
But if Jeb can’t bring himself to criticize his brother’s performance too harshly, if at all, cosmetic differences won’t be enough. He will be perceived as just another Bush, and rightly so.