The strangest advertisements in recent US political history may have been a set of billboards that appeared in early 2010. They showed former president George W Bush goofily waving next to the question: “Miss me yet?” Certainly, those were rough months for Bush’s successor Barack Obama, who was losing the argument (even as he was winning the vote) over his ambitious health care reform. But Americans were not about to summon back Bush, whom they associated with two failed wars and the near destruction of the world financial system. Indeed, it was unclear whether the signs had been paid for by an earnest Bush supporter or a Bush hater with a dark sense of humour.
Lately, though, certain Republican party donors have come to believe there exists a widespread nostalgia for the Bush era. They are urging Jeb Bush, the ex-president’s younger brother and the former governor of Florida, to explore a presidential campaign. They are nuts. It is evidence of how deep the party’s divisions go.
Jeb Bush’s Mexican wife, his record of promoting Hispanics and his one-time tally of 61 per cent of the Latino vote have all piqued the interest of Republican strategists. But he cannot replicate these numbers nationally. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in March found 48 per cent of voters would “definitely not vote for him” under any circumstances. There is no reason to believe they are playing coy. Bush would need to get 96 per cent of the undecided vote to win.
Americans have indulged political dynasties — the Bushes, the Clintons, the Kennedys — but they cannot feel good about it. Dynasties are a sign of corruption. They are most useful for assuring continuity in fundraising and the transgenerational delivery of quid pro quos. Certain Bush advisers have crowed to the newspapers that the likely candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president, would neutralise popular resentment of Bush’s privileged family background. But there is a difference. Hillary has an approval rating well over 50 per cent. Americans remember Bill Clinton’s administration fondly. They look on the elder George Bush as a failed president, and the younger George W. Bush as a catastrophic one.
It is not merely antipathy among Democrats that accounts for Bush’s shaky polling numbers. His party is split, perhaps fatally, between its wealthy donors and its declasse voters. So big is the role of fundraising in national politics that few politicians spend enough time with non-millionaires to realise how distant from voters they have become. Until recently, New Jersey governor Chris Christie appeared to be the Republican who could most easily unite the two wings. He has access to New York hedge fund money and expertise. His wise-guy demeanour and great belly send a signal of credibility to the common man. But when allegations emerged that Christie had sought to harass a mayor by snarling the traffic through his town, the party’s donors lost, at least for a time, their most likely point of attachment to its voters.
This is a danger sign for Republicans. The plutocratic wing chose the party’s presidential nominee in 2012 and demoralised everybody. At a time when health care was Obama’s great offence against the public and the symbol of what was most resented in his style of government, Republicans nominated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. He was the only US politician to have enacted a plan similar to Obama’s, and therefore the only conceivable nominee who would not be able to use his own party’s strongest arguments. In recent weeks, Bush has made contact with Romney donors. He has auditioned at an unseemly Las Vegas dinner hosted by the gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who poured $93 million(Dh341.3 million) into the last election.
Democrats won the last two presidential elections by nominating someone who inspires their party base, and then battling it out for uncommitted voters.
The Republican party is following a different strategy. It is courting money men and trusting that the red-hot rank-and-file members will fall into line, having no place else to go. But they will not. Right now, those voters appear to be gravitating to the conservative Kentucky senator Rand Paul, with his nontraditional mix of libertarianism, isolationism and Austrian economics.
Republican candidates generally raise less campaign funding than Democrats do. Beholden to a few big donors, Republicans are left peddling a strategy many of their ordinary activists find repugnant. Bush is being promoted by Republicans whose main interest in the party is that it not nominate someone who will shake up the Obama-era economic settlement. The strategy seems bound to produce an electoral loss. That appears to be of little concern to the people devising it.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.