It was the one question Jeb Bush knew was coming and would keep coming. Would he, like his brother, have invaded Iraq? Yet it took Jeb – the third Bush to make a run for the White House – five stabs over four days in May to come up with a coherent answer. He glided from telling Fox News that he’d have ordered US troops into Iraq even knowing what we know now, through claiming to have misunderstood the question, to admitting that “mistakes were made”.
Eventually, he settled on a final answer. “Knowing what we know now . . . I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” he said. This was not how it was supposed to be in the lead-up to the launch of Jeb’s campaign for the presidency on 15 June. He had expected to be cruising towards the Republican nomination and a showdown in November 2016 with Hillary Clinton. But a series of embarrassments, including the revelation that he once falsely claimed he was of Latino origin, and a headstart by Republican rivals, has left Jeb scrambling to reassert his claim to be the party’s inevitable candidate.
Hillary, too, has had to grapple with setbacks of her own making. But a Jeb-Hillary showdown for the White House next year is still the most likely outcome of the tortuous primary season. And it is a prospect that both excites and depresses Americans.
Some see it as evidence of the bankruptcy of US politics. Of a country so shorn of fresh leadership and ideas, and so disillusioned with the failure of the present resident of the White House to deliver on hope and change, that it is rerunning old elections. Political pundits groan that it will alienate young voters even further.
Then there’s the disturbing whiff of dynasty in a republic. If Hillary or Jeb is elected, there will have been a Clinton or Bush as the president or his deputy in every administration over the four decades to 2021 – with the exception of Barack Obama’s eight years. (And Hillary was still firmly on the scene then, coming close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2008 and serving in Obama’s cabinet.)
Even Barbara Bush, married to one ex-president and the mother of another, has spoken against a third member of her family taking a shot at the White House. “I think this is a . . . great country and if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly,” she told C-Span, the cable and satellite channel covering Congress, early last year. “I think that the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes – there are just more families than that.”
Adding to the hint of dark comedy is that the Bushes and Clintons have become so close – George W calls Bill his “brother from another mother”; Bill reportedly regards George H W Bush, president for a single term from 1989, as a father figure; and Jeb presented Hillary with a freedom medal last year – that the race smacks of an interfamilial spat.
Hillary, 67, has the significant advantage of a historic effort to become the US’s first female president. She is already a well-known public figure who has the advantage of a popular husband – Bill’s presidency is regarded favourably by two-thirds of Americans, particularly because it was a time of economic prosperity – and has established herself as a political force in her own right. The family name also carries with it remarkable fundraising capacities.
Many Democratic voters feel she has earned the right to be their party’s presidential candidate after losing out to Obama in 2008. The polls suggest that Hillary is in a stronger position to take the nomination than she was eight years ago. Although she was touted as the front-runner in 2008 until Obama crept up, polling shows her commanding much greater support among Democratic primary voters now. The socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has launched a rival campaign which is already shifting the debate within the Democratic Party and dragging Hillary a little to the left. But she retains a commanding 45-point lead over him.
Like her or not, and Hillary elicits unusually high “very unfavourable” ratings, few question her intellect or political nous. But her sincerity is open to challenge after four decades in which she has repeatedly shifted position with the political winds. More than half of those questioned in a Quinnipiac poll on 17 June in Florida – a crucial state in the election – said they do not regard Hillary as “honest and trustworthy”, whereas the majority trust Jeb.
Hillary was in favour of the invasion of Iraq, against gay marriage and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, until she changed her mind on those and a slew of other issues. She angered progressives in the 1990s by supporting her husband’s cuts to welfare and was seen as far too close to Wall Street after she was elected a senator for New York in 2000.
The image of elitism has inconveniently persisted just as income inequality is becoming a political issue. Last year Hillary complained of being “dead broke” after she and Bill left the White House, even though they were soon pulling in millions of dollars. The couple, like the Blairs, have not shied away from the opportunity to rake in cash. Hillary has been forced to deny that the large sums of money the Clinton Foundation accepted from foreign governments, notably Saudi Arabia, had an influence on her decisions as US secretary of state. What should have been an asset – the foundation is involved in a range of causes, from combating Aids and promoting education for girls to economic empowerment – has become a political embarrassment.
The sense that Hillary is not trustworthy and has something to hide was compounded by the revelation in March that she set up her own server to store emails as US secretary of state. It also plays into the impression that she is an elitist who regards herself as being above the rules. Ultimately, Hillary comes across less as an inspiring leader than as a brand to be managed.
For Jeb, the path to power is trickier. The Bush dynasty attracts influential support, but the name is also a drag, associated not just with the Iraq debacle and economic turmoil but, for many Republicans, with the betrayal of conservative fiscal values.
Moreover, the Republican field is much wider than the one for the Democrats. Even before Jeb declared, ten other candidates had jumped into the race, including two repeat offenders, the Texas ex-governor Rick Perry and the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Jeb is unlikely to lose much sleep over them, but he will worry about the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, and the Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American who can steal his thunder on his home turf.
With the Bush family political machine behind him, Jeb has a large campaign chest, said to be close to $100m, a crucial asset in a long contest. But he faces the prospect of a politically bloody showdown just to get the nomination. He got a taste of it at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February when he was booed by grass-roots activists who dismiss him as “too moderate”.
Republican candidates on the hard right, such as the junior Texas senator, Ted Cruz, also pose a threat because they are likely to shift the debate to issues, such as immigration and education, which turn many Republican voters off Jeb.
Yet far from shying away from the confrontation, Jeb, 62, appears to be setting the stage for a showdown that could make or break his presidential ambitions, and his party, in 2016. In December, he said that Republican candidates must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election – a forthright challenge to the conservatives and Tea Party voters who turn out in higher numbers in the primaries.
“It’s going to be a challenging primary but he’s going to run unafraid to lose,” says Jorge Arrizurieta, a close family friend in Miami who served in George W’s administration and shares office space with Jeb. “What he’s saying is we’re going to have to accept that there are positions and issues that we have historically embraced that are not going to make sense to continue to embrace. And we’re going to have to change the messaging and the tone if we’re going to win the next election.”
To the Republican establishment, Jeb – who is married to a Mexican, speaks impeccable Spanish and was governor of heavily Hispanic Florida for eight years – offers the enticing promise of dragging his party out of its cul-de-sac of ethnic politics to win enough of the rapidly growing but alienated Latino vote to decide the election.
His home state, the third most populous in the US and the most closely fought of the swing states, will loom large through the contest. Florida’s electoral college votes form 10 per cent of the total any candidate must secure to win the presidency. Victory in the state’s tainted ballot 15 years ago put George W in the White House. Obama took Florida in 2012 with a majority of less than 1 per cent of the vote in the state over Mitt Romney. The Republicans must reclaim Florida next year to win the presidency.
Jeb may be the Republicans’ best shot to do so. The Quinnipiac poll of crucial swing states gave Hillary a substantial lead over most potential Republican contenders in Florida, but showed a much tighter race against the native sons Jeb and Rubio.
Yet Jeb faces the formidable challenge of escaping his brother’s legacy. Running against a Clinton somewhat offsets the dynasty issue, but there will be no escaping the pressure to renounce an array of George W’s policies, from economics to Iraq.
“He has to show people why he isn’t just ‘the next Bush’. He’s going to have to prove he isn’t Dubbya,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Centre for Politics. “How exactly does Jeb Bush attack Hillary Clinton on economics when the obvious retort is ‘your brother left the country in the worst recession since the Great Depression’? It tends to discredit your economic ideas.”
Jeb has not helped his cause by appointing George W as a top foreign policy adviser and surrounding himself with many of his father’s and brother’s foreign policy and security aides, including Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon architect of the Iraq policy, two former homeland security chiefs and two former CIA directors.
As Jeb seeks to define himself less as the swaggering Texan cowboy than the culturally attuned idealist naturally at home in melting-pot Miami, his views and experience are already coming under scrutiny from the Hillary camp and Republican rivals. He left Houston because of the racism his wife, Columba, endured and found a home among the conservative, business-minded anti-Castro Cuban exiles who came to remake Miami’s culture and politics.
Florida is the one place where Jeb Bush is already unequivocally regarded as his own man. He remains one of the state’s most popular politicians after his eight years as governor, not least for his competence in confronting a series of hurricanes, in contrast to his brother’s bungling of Katrina’s 2005 assault on New Orleans.
“The country has low expectations [of Jeb],” says his family friend Jorge Arrizurieta. “A large number of Americans think they know him and they don’t. But that could be as much an opportunity as a challenge in this election. He ended leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings of any former governor in Florida.”
Arrizurieta, whose office wall is decorated with pictures of generations of Bushes as well as Ronald Reagan, treads delicately around the perception that Jeb is the brighter of the brothers.
“If I were to distinguish them, I’d say it’s the obsession on preparedness [sic] and the obsession on being knowledgeable. I’m not suggesting that President Bush [George W] is not interested in being knowledgeable or is not prepared but I don’t think that it’s to the level where Jeb’s at,” he said. “Jeb is as firm, as clear, as unequivocal as George W Bush might be accused of not being.”
Indeed, his opponents generally pay tribute to his intelligence and intricate grasp of policy issues. “Anybody who underestimates Jeb Bush does it at his own peril,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign in Florida. “He’s an exceptionally bright guy.
“He’s a policy wonk. He knows his stuff. If you talk to people that worked for him as governor, he had staff but he viewed himself in many ways as the smartest person in the room. He probably frequently was the smartest person in the room.”
But Florida also lays bare a depth to Jeb’s ideological conservatism to which most Americans are yet to be exposed, including, ironically, those on the right of the Republican Party who accuse him of being too moderate, or a Rino: a Republican In Name Only. Hillary’s backers are already starting to shine a light on parts of his record that suggest he is a more deeply ideological conservative than much of America realises.
In 1994 Jeb lost the race for Florida governor against the Democratic incumbent, Lawton Chiles, following a campaign in which he described himself as a “head-banging conservative” ready to “club this government into submission”.
“He ran that election not only as a head-banging conservative but almost an off-the-tracks conservative,” says Dan Gelber, who became a high-ranking Democrat in the Florida legislature during Bush’s tenure as governor. “One of his primary criticisms of the governor was he was not signing death warrants fast enough, that Lawton Chiles wasn’t executing people quickly enough for him. That’s a pretty right-wing view to use as a campaign position. He made ideological issues like abortion touchstone issues that are the right wing’s bread and butter.”
Jeb said that women receiving welfare assistance should “get their life together and find a husband” to support them. He objected to legal protections from discrimination for gay people, arguing that “we have enough special categories, enough victims”, and said the proposed legislation endorsed “sodomy”. He also had the catering staff at a fundraiser remove Aids ribbons because they were a “political statement”.
Perhaps the remark mostly likely to return to haunt him was his response to a question about what he would do for African Americans as Florida’s governor. “Probably nothing,” he replied. Not only did he lose, but he did so in a year when Republicans swept the board in other parts of the country and seized control of the US House of Representatives.
John “Mac” Stipanovich was Jeb’s campaign manager in 1994. Stipanovich drew national notoriety six years later for advising Florida’s then secretary of state, Katherine Harris, on the “hanging chad” vote recount that put George W into the White House instead of Al Gore.
“George W was running for governor in Texas at the same time, so to differentiate Jeb – in effect brand him – we were very specific about any number of issues that were important at the time, and Jeb was very conservative,” says Stipanovich, who also ran the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign in Florida in 1984. “By being so specific, what it also did was enable our opponents to lash out at him, chip away at what we were doing, and ultimately they were successful.”
The lesson that Jeb drew from the campaign was to shield his less palatable views from voters.
“I’m making the numbers up but back in ’94 Jeb believed ten things very firmly and all of them were very conservative,” Stipanovich says. “Let’s assume for a moment that the people of Florida only agreed with him by wide margins on four of those things. What he learned between ’94 and ’98 was, he didn’t change his position: he just didn’t talk much about the six. He talked about the four.” Still, the candidate showed the extent of his conservatism after he won election as governor in 1998, following a far less ideological campaign. “He was a hyper-partisan, hyper-ideological governor,” says Schale, the Democratic strategist. “The irony of this national brand of Jeb being this moderate, ‘get along, go along’ kind of guy is that’s not who he was as governor at all. He was very much a ‘my way or the highway’ politician. Very much ideological, almost libertarian. Democrats were weeded out of the state government, they were marginalised by the governor.” As governor, he scrapped affirmative-action programmes and oversaw the passing of the notorious “stand your ground” gun law, which two years ago got George Zimmerman off in Florida for shooting the teenager Trayvon Martin. He pushed religious initiatives, including a faith-based prison.
Jeb also played an instrumental role in winning the release from prison of Orlando Bosch, a right-wing Cuban exile to the US convicted of mounting a terrorist attack on a Polish ship and strongly implicated in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane which killed all 73 civilians on board.
Furthermore, the Hillary campaign is likely to make much of Jeb’s decision to wade into a years-long family legal battle over whether to turn off the life support for a woman in a persistent vegetative state in the early 2000s. Terri Schiavo’s husband wished to let her die; Jeb backed her parents’ effort to keep her alive.
When the courts ruled in 2003 that life support could be withdrawn, he encouraged the Florida legislature to take the extraordinary step of passing legislation permitting him to override the courts. He then had the state police remove Schiavo from a hospice and taken to a hospital to have a feeding tube reinserted. The move caused uproar and Florida’s supreme court ruled his actions unconstitutional.
Despite this track record, Jeb finds himself on the back foot with the right-wingers who turn out in large numbers in primary elections. They haven’t forgiven George W for betraying a promise to shrink the government and taxes, and they baulk at anyone backed by the party establishment, scorned for suggesting compromise in order to win elections.
Jeb has riled conservatives over another issue that infuriates the Republican base but that is largely based on a misunderstanding. As governor, he enthusiastically promoted Common Core, a set of national education standards cooked up by state governors. The conspiratorial end of the Republican right has latched on to the idea that it is a secret attempt by the federal government to take over education – a purview of individual states – and has taken to calling it ObamaCore, even though the White House played only a marginal role.
In the face of this, Jeb’s challenge is to persuade the Republican base ahead of the primaries that he is indeed an authentic and deep conservative without scaring swing voters in the general election. “The irony about this is his opponents appear to be trying to peg him as the moderate, which is almost laughable,” says Stipanovich. “I don’t think he’s changed his mind about much in 20 years but the Republican Party sometimes stampeded to the right of us.”
Jeb says he is up for the fight. Two years ago, he warned the Conservative Political Action Conference that Republicans are too often associated with being “anti”. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party,” he said. The perception of the Republicans as anti-immigrant matters in a country where what to do about the 11 million-plus illegal migrants, predominantly from Mexico, is an open political sore and possibly a decisive issue in 2016.
It lies at the heart of a factor that appears to favour the Democrats – demographics. Younger people, white women and minorities all voted strongly in favour of Obama. But the Democrats in general, and Clinton in particular, struggle with one demographic: white men.
“One of the challenges the Democrats have is, even with a more diverse electorate, my party has to be concerned by the fact that we have to do better among whites than we’re doing, particularly white men,” says Schale. “You can run up the score among blacks and Hispanics but if you’re only getting 30 or 35 per cent of the white vote, the math gets really hard. If you’re getting 40 per cent it gets a lot easier.”
That is particularly true in Florida, where seven out of ten voters are white but the number of Latinos on the rolls is rising. They account for more than 10 per cent of the electorate and in parts of the country that play a critical role in the election result, including Florida, their votes are often up for grabs between the parties.
Jeb is popular with the Hispanic community. His party is not popular, however, in large part because of the debate over illegal migration. He has described the matter as “toxic” and said it cost the Republicans half of their support among Latinos at the last presidential election.
Hillary and the Democrats are pushing a “path to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants who have lived in the US long enough. The Republican right describes that as “rewarding lawbreakers” and regards any form of legalisation as “amnesty” and akin to treason.
Jeb bluntly laid out the problem in his 2013 book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. He warned that Republicans “cannot win future national elections without increased Hispanic support” and that this is jeopardised by the poisoned debate over the matter. Mitt Romney’s attempts to formulate an immigration policy acceptable to the right wing of his party during the 2012 primaries descended into farce as he latched on to the widely ridiculed concept of “self-deportation” – the illusion that millions of illegal immigrants would go home of their own accord and wait years for a US visa to allow them to return.
Hispanic support for the Republicans plummeted from 44 per cent in 2008, when John McCain was the party’s presidential candidate, to just 27 per cent for Romney, and helped deliver Florida for Obama. Jeb said his party’s position on immigration “hung like an anvil around [Romney’s] candidacy”. “The toxic rhetoric of ‘self-deportation’ suggests that certain groups are not wanted,” he wrote in his book.
Immigration might be an issue for Hillary, too, given Obama’s track record. He has deported record numbers of illegal migrants and failed to follow through on promises of reform made in his first year in office, when the Democrats controlled Congress. But he has stolen back the initiative with executive orders providing de facto amnesty to several million immigrants smuggled in to the United States as children and to adults with children who are US citizens.
Hillary strongly backed the move and has positioned herself to reassure Latino families she will defend it as president.
The Republican response has been to seek to alienate Hispanic voters further by denouncing Obama’s moves as an abuse of power and trying to cut off funding for the scheme. Jeb demonstrated the bind he is in as he tries to woo primary voters and Latinos in the general election by joining in criticisms of the president’s actions, suggesting that Obama had “overstepped his executive authority”, yet saying he backs legislation that would have much the same result.
Arrizurieta says that Jeb’s greatest asset in overcoming the immigration question is simply to show who he is.
“For Jeb, it’s really not that hard. Married to a Mexican lady, his kids are about as American as anybody else but they kind of look Hispanic because they’ve got their mother’s genes,” he says.
“When you’ve created a family that is multicultural and you’ve experienced the culture by living in Miami for 30 years, the issue comes first hand. That’s a huge asset in a general election. It’s more of a challenge in the primary.”
Schale said Jeb probably poses the greatest threat to Hillary’s bid for the presidency because of it. “He does have, and Democrats shouldn’t underestimate this, a fairly significant well of support among Hispanics. He’s spent a lot of time building relationships and trying to be accessible.
“Florida’s a hyper-competitive state and Jeb gives the Republicans a lot more chance of winning it than, say, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Scott Walker, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.”
Arrizurieta would agree with that. He acknowledges the pitfalls for Jeb but sits back and enjoys the idea of a man he regards as one of his own in the White House.
“They used to refer to [Bill] Clinton as the first black president. I can assure you, if we’re fortunate enough to get there, Jeb Bush will be the first Hispanic president,” he says.