February 22, 2016
Saturday marked at least a temporary halt of the Bush political dynasty. Beginning with Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, continuing with his son President George H.W. Bush, grandson President George W. Bush, and his other grandson Jeb, it once appeared a record three presidents could sprout from the family tree.
Journalists had their political obituaries ready to post as soon as Jeb withdrew from the race. We’ve heard how the campaign miscalculated and wasted $150 million. We’ve contemplated the reluctance of the electorate to pick an insider candidate.
We’ve ruminated on Jeb’s personal shortcomings as a candidate, his inability to leverage his record as a reformer. We’ve discussed how rusty he was after going a decade and a half without running for office, a decade without holding office.
We’ve snickered at his inability to combat Donald Trump, his ineffectiveness in attacking Marco Rubio. Apparently the student has now far exceeded the master. The long descent of his campaign gave us plenty of time to consider all these things.
The one thing I don’t hear mentioned is how bad the Bush family is at winning elections. That’s the most interesting part of this political dynasty. They’ve succeeded despite themselves.
Above all, we shouldn’t have expected Jeb to win because like his forebears, he’s bad at winning elections against credible opponents. Let’s go back in time and take a look at this remarkable record of political failure.
1950: Prescott Bush runs for the Senate from Connecticut. He loses.
1964: George H.W. Bush runs for the Senate from Texas. He loses.
1978: George W. Bush runs for the House of Representatives from the 19th District in Texas. He loses.
1994: Jeb Bush runs for Florida Governor. He loses.
Each of the four lost their first attempt at major public office. This is not the stuff dynasties are normally constructed from.
Robert F. Kennedy lost the Oregon primary in 1968. I mention this because it was the first time a Kennedy lost anything. Until Ted began his presidential nomination run in 1980, this was still the only defeat in family history.
JFK won every election he participated in. Three times elected to the House, twice to the Senate, once to the presidency. He tried a couple of presidential primaries and won them.
RFK won election to the Senate from New York in his first try, and every presidential primary he entered except Oregon. Ted was nine for nine in Senate elections, winning re-election less than two years after driving a young woman off a bridge and leaving her to drown.
That’s what a dynasty looks like. But Bushes have succeeded despite their difficulty in getting elected. They are very determined. After losing in 1950, Prescott wanted a rematch in 1952 (the previous election was for a partial term.)
The state GOP passed. Then Connecticut’s other senator passed away. Prescott got another chance and won. Without this opportunity, we may have never seen a future President Bush.
Prescott served until 1963. He wasn’t a lion of the Senate, but was well respected, and was an important part of the liberal to moderate wing of the East Coast GOP. He’s what a Rockefeller Republican looked like.
When George threw his hat in the ring in Texas the next year, he was able to draw on some of his dad’s friends and contacts, along with his own in the Lone Star State. Unlike his sons who were firmly tied to the Sun Belt, the eventual Bush 41 straddled both worlds.
It didn’t help his electoral result. Democrats still ruled Texas in those days, but Republican John Tower won a special Senate election in 1961, so George thought he had a shot. Incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough didn’t get along with Governor John Connally or President Lyndon Johnson.
Part of the motivation for JFK’s ill-fated trip to Texas in November 1963 was to patch over these conflicts in preparation for the 1964 election. Kennedy very narrowly defeated Nixon there in 1960 and couldn’t afford to lose those electoral votes.
Despite covert assistance from then-Democrat Connally, Bush lost. LBJ was on the ballot and not enough voters split tickets. Yarborough effectively branded Bush a carpetbagger tied to eastern money. This wasn’t the last time a Bush would suffer from links to the establishment.
From here forward, southern Bushes would receive the benefit of eastern money, but often suffer for it at the ballot box. George shook off the defeat to win a House seat in 1966 and get re-elected in 1968.
In 1970 he tried the Senate again. Both he and Yarborough were preparing for a rematch. Unfortunately, Lloyd Bentsen, later to verbally disembowel Dan Quayle, had other ideas. He defeated Yarborough in the primary and Bush in the general.
If you’re scoring at home, this put the Bush family Senate election record at 2 wins and 3 losses. In November 1970, it didn’t seem like a dynasty was in the offing.
Bush lost the election despite considerable establishment support, including President Nixon, who had the campaign on his priority list. Bentsen was more appealing and actually got to his right on a few issues.
This means he lost one race in part by being too conservative–Yarborough claimed George was to Barry Goldwater’s right, and another by being too moderate. This theme will return later on.
A twice-defeated Senate candidate who served two House terms is normally exiled to political purgatory. Instead, Nixon made Bush Ambassador to the U.N. He was then enlisted to serve as RNC chair during the worst of Watergate.
Passed over in favor of Gerald Ford when Nixon needed to nominate a new VP, and by Ford in favor of Nelson Rockefeller when the vacancy re-opened, Bush served as pseudo-Ambassador to China and then filled in as CIA director for a spell during their most turbulent era.
Much of the architecture that would propel multiple Bushes into the White House was built during George’s time in Washington in the 1970s. But he kept getting passed over for the Vice Presidency.
Enter his 1980 presidential run. Yet again, George Herbert Walker Bush ran for something and didn’t win. In fairness, he did very well, winding up second to Ronald Reagan before getting tabbed for the ticket.
This is the best job he ever did in a campaign. In addition to Reagan, he was up against John Connally, who set fundraising records, Howard Baker, a very respected senator, Bob Dole, the 1976 VP nominee on the losing Ford ticket (the third time George was passed over), and others.
The fourth time was the charm, and Vice President Bush had a leg up on the 1988 nomination. When he ultimately won that election, it marked the third and final victory in his career. Four years later, he lost his re-election bid to a more charismatic candidate after being beaten up by proto-Trump Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire.
Clinton’s charisma and Buchanan’s populism foreshadowed some of the trouble Jeb would have in 2016. George ended his career with 3 wins and 4 losses, combining with Prescott to leave the family record tied at 5 and 5.
It was against this backdrop that Jeb and W launched their serious political careers for the 1994 election season. As we’ve all heard, Jeb was the heir to the throne, W the longshot rebel.
When he ran for Congress in 1978, W was in his early thirties and not quite ready. By 1994, he’d completed a successful run as Managing General Partner of the Texas Rangers and led the effort to build their new ballpark. Most importantly, unlike his dad, grandfather, and brother, he was a great campaigner.
Incumbent Governor Ann Richards was popular, and a couple decades ago Democrats could still win statewide elections in Texas. W was the underdog, and Richards didn’t take him incredibly seriously. With his upset victory, W became the first Bush to win his first attempt at moving up a level.
After being easily re-elected in 1998, he repeated the feat in 2000 with his presidential nomination and victory. In doing so, he left the Bush electoral history in the dust, and became the first Republican to win the White House in his first try since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
In 2004, he separated the Bushes from the Adamses, when he won re-election, something the previous presidential legacy, John Quincy Adams failed to do in 1828. The moral of the story is W was actually really good at the winning elections thing.
Where Prescott and George did better in office than trying to get elected to it, W was an excellent candidate and campaigner with a more questionable record in office, at least in the presidency.
History is always re-evaluating, but for now, it appears Bush 41 was better at being president, Bush 43 better at getting elected president. When W took back to the stump last week in the Jeb Salvage Operation, he reminded everyone how good a politician he was.
Where Prescott was a full-fledged member of the eastern establishment, and George was a full member with Texas dual citizenship, W was a Texan first and second. He benefitted from establishment money and contacts, but never joined it. This is part of why he’s still popular with GOP rank and file.
Back to Jeb, the assumed heir to Prescott and George’s lineage. He’s more of a Bush than W is. This means he’s better at holding office than attaining it. Few claim he wasn’t a somewhat to tremendously successful governor.
The majority of people who worked with or covered him and Marco Rubio endorsed Jeb in 2016. This wasn’t a matter of Bush family ties or fundraising heft. This was Floridian insiders thinking Jeb was the guy who was ready for the job.
But he couldn’t get elected governor until he faced a weak candidate. In 1994 he faced off against incumbent Lawton Chiles and fell short. Much like Ann Richards in Texas, he was an old-school Democrat, good at campaigning and appealing to lifelong Floridians.
Though Jeb had spent over a decade in Florida by this point, he grew up in Texas, and his dad had a lifetime eastern establishment membership. In many respects, he repeated his dad’s 1964 experience.
Trying to combat being a relative outsider and his father’s relative moderation, Jeb played up his ideological purity. He called himself a “head-banging conservative.” This allowed Chiles to portray him as a relative extremist. Trapped between his opponent and his dad’s legacy, he lost.
In 1998, he got to try again, and rounded off the edges from his previous effort, winning easily. This is the race his dad hoped to run in 1970 before Bentsen defeated Yarborough. Jeb went on to serve his two terms with distinction, but as we know, his brother was blocking his ascent to the presidency.
If nothing else, the Jeb campaign has clearly shown his place wasn’t stolen by his brother. It wasn’t just a matter of luck, of falling just short while W barely won. One of these guys is a great campaigner and it’s not Jeb.
People talk about W ending Jeb’s chances because the country wasn’t ready for a third Bush president. That probably didn’t help. The bigger issue is Jeb was going to need multiple attempts to get nominated and/or elected, and he’s getting a late start.
George’s son and Prescott’s grandson was never getting nominated in his first try. While he’s arguably the most effective Bush to have ever held office, he does not have his brother’s political skill or his father’s political drive.
Bush 41 spent a very long time trying to get elected to high office. From his involvement in the Houston-area GOP in the very early 1960s to his eventual election to the presidency, he pushed forward for almost thirty years towards this goal.
Jeb is a policy wonk., someone who gets deep into the weeds, unlike his fellow dynasty members. He would have made a great cabinet secretary. Being a Bush gave him an opportunity to run for offices otherwise closed to someone without natural political skills.
It may have cost him the chance to make a contribution at the national level. His tenure in Florida did have an impact, and several of his programs were adopted elsewhere, but he (at least temporarily) leaves the stage without making the full contribution he wanted to.
Perhaps his son will pick up the baton. There is another Bush on deck. Texas Land Commissioner George Prescott Bush. Elected in 2014, he became the first Bush to win his first election. Perhaps he takes more after his uncle than his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
It’s too early to worry about Bush fatigue limiting his chances at high office, too soon to speculate if his dad blowing through $130-150 million in campaign contributions will turn off the family spigot.
Like George H.W. and Jeb, George P. is a bit of a carpetbagger, having moved to Texas (where he was born) from Florida where he grew up. It’s easy to see history repeating itself and forcing him to try multiple times to move up the ladder. It’s useless to speculate on how badly he wants to push.
We may not have heard the last of the Bush Dynasty. Few have ever done so well, with so little natural political skill as they have. If George P. turns into a good politician and has his grandpa’s drive, we’ll hear from him yet.
A Bush tried and failed to win an election. That isn’t news.