Monday night in South Carolina, ex-president George W. Bush is set to appear with brother Jeb Bush for the first time in the 2016 campaign. Former first lady Laura Bush will be there too, as Jeb! turns the dial up to 11 in advance of Saturday’s crucial Palmetto State GOP primary.
Is this a big risk for Jeb Bush? Yes, yes it is. But given his position in the polls he may have no choice. He’s lagging and time is running out. It’s quite possible that whether he drops out or continues depends entirely on South Carolina’s outcome.
It’s a risk for obvious reasons: associating with his brother only emphasizes the dynastic aspect of Jeb’s presidential run. Voters may decide the nation has had enough Bushes, to paraphrase an old remark of mother Barbara Bush.
Among US voters as a whole, the 43rd president remains a divisive figure. A Pew poll from last May found his favorable ratings still underwater – 52 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view opinion of his presidency, while only 44 percent had a favorable view, for a net result of minus 8.
Plus, the reappearance of W. on the national scene may reignite debate over his invasion of Iraq in 2003. Donald Trump, for one, has hammered Jeb over his brother’s decisions. At Saturday’s GOP debate The Donald charged that Bush 43 squandered billions on a needless war justified by a search for weapons of mass destruction that the administration knew did not exist.
This may reopen an argument that many Republicans wish would remain dormant. The GOP itself has mostly refrained from debating the Iraq War’s legacy, at least in public, writes right-leaning Washington Examiner columnist Byron York.
“But Trump has changed that,” according to Mr. York. “And in the process he has revealed the deepest flaws in Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy.”
But let’s be honest – Jeb Bush is in a deep political hole regardless, and needs to do something, anything, to pull himself out.
His New Hampshire primary showing allowed him to claim a small victory, though he spent tens of millions to finish fourth, behind Ted Cruz, who spent only a fraction of that amount. Now he needs to show continued momentum or his big donors and establishment backers may defect to Marco Rubio.
And right now he’s fifth in South Carolina. According to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major state surveys, he’s attracting 10 percent of the Palmetto State vote. That’s a tick behind John Kasich, and four points or so behind Rubio.
Thus Jeb went for the W. appearance. It’s a Hail Mary, a long shot, a grasp at a straw, to mix lots of metaphors. But it’s so crazy it just might work. George W. Bush remains popular among Republican voters – the Pew poll cited above showed that about three-quarters of self-identified GOP adherents viewed Bush favorably. And in South Carolina, which has a heavy military presence and heritage, the Iraq War legacy may not weigh as heavily as elsewhere. Back in 2008, an NBC poll found that only 3 percent of South Carolina Republican voters thought a GOP candidate should represent “a different approach from President Bush”.
But 2008 was a long time ago, in the pre-Trump political era. Jeb Bush’s future may now depend on whether attitudes towards his brother in the state remain the same.