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Talking Nice and Playing Dirty with the Bush Family

Willie Horton ad

Great news for those who seek clarity heading into the 2016 presidential election: Republican donors have decided that Jeb Bush should be the next president. Pair that with the even more established fact that Democratic donors, and Democrats in general, have decided that Hillary Clinton should be the next president, and it seems clear that the crumbling United States of America will finally be getting the Bush-Clinton race it deserves.

Why do the money people like Jeb Bush? Because he’s not a Tea Partier, and he’s not Chris Christie. Sure, give him the money, they say with a shrug. Better yet, just give him the nomination now. After all, the GOP machine always picks as its presidential nominee the guy whose “turn” it is next. And since, by election day 2016, it will have been a full eight years since a member of the Bush family occupied the White House, it’s almost certainly Jeb Bush’s turn to restore honor and dignity and “Americanness” to the Oval Office.

Some are suggesting that there may be some problems for “The Bush That Got Away.” Jeb Bush hasn’t run a campaign since his successful reelection as Florida governor in 2002, before the Internet as we know it (YouTube, Twitter, etcetera) came into being. The Republican Party of 2002 was also an entirely different beast: back then, it was generally okay with “big government” social programs, as long as we were constantly launching land wars overseas. Contemporary Republican politics, on the other hand, are defined by 24/7 reactionary bile in a void. But Jeb Bush dares to dream of an alternative. From the New York Times this week:

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — With eyes increasingly on him, Jeb Bush signaled on Sunday the kind of campaign he would mount if he runs for president, one arguing against ideological purity tests while challenging party orthodoxy on issues like immigration and education.

Even as he sharply criticized President Obama for his handling of foreign affairs and health care, Mr. Bush made clear that he would run against the style of politics that has characterized recent Republican nominating contests. He said he would decide by the end of the year, in part on whether he thinks he could avoid “the vortex of a mud fight” with a “hopeful” message.

“We need to elect candidates that have a vision that is bigger and broader, and candidates that are organized around winning the election, not making a point,” Mr. Bush told an audience at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “Campaigns ought to be about listening and learning and getting better. I do think we’ve lost our way.” He added, “I’m not being critical of my party, but campaigns themselves are reflective of this new America.”

Bush’s comments over the weekend led conservative Washington Examiner pundit Byron York to muse that Bush “just doesn’t seem like a politician in top fighting shape. It’s not even clear he wants the fight at all.”

York makes a fair observation; it’s the observation of the moment, in fact. But it does elide some key history: the Bushes know how to win elections, and they know how to do it by talking nice and playing dirty.

Willie Horton ad

A still from the 1988 Willie Horton ad
(Via Flickr.)

Consider the reason that Jeb Bush was even in College Station, Texas, this past weekend: a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of his father’s presidency at the George H. W. Bush presidential library. Bush Sr., “Poppy,” is remembered well, even by many liberals. He was the last “moderate” Republican president, as the story goes. He was the fellow who raised taxes to help cover Ronald Reagan’s legacy of budget deficits and who stormed Iraq out of Kuwait while having the humility not to continue the march all the way to Baghdad—all while calmly presiding over the unwinding of Cold War-era geopolitical positions. He was America’s Sane Grandfather. Let’s not forget, though, that he got his way into office by running one of the dirtiest smear campaigns in recent American history.

Then, George H. W. Bush’s son and Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush also won by playing up his nice side. He was the “compassionate conservative,” remember, who wanted to focus on things like improving education and helping seniors defray the costs of prescription drugs. He didn’t need to play nasty, personally, to win; but only because he had people like Karl Rove to do that for him in his obliterations of John McCain, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

Given this legacy, it’s not hard to imagine that Jeb Bush might run the same playbook. If he follows the examples set for him by his brother and father, Jeb can personally avoid the “vortex of a mud fight” while letting henchmen from his family’s experienced network go about the business of ruining the competition.

In fact, the campaign finance landscape suits up much better for this sort of arrangement now than it did for those previous campaigns. Jeb Bush’s campaign can go on muttering whatever niceties about improving public schools it wants, while well-funded Super PACs supporting him will be free to run smear ads about Rand Paul’s secret black babies or whatever. The meanness of the Bush family, and its ability to get results, must never be underestimated.