WASHINGTON -- Don’t expect to see George W. Bush showing up at campaign rallies for brother Jeb Bush anytime soon. While the elder Bush brother is attending a fundraiser for the younger Wednesday, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to overcome his liabilities and become a real asset for the growing campaign.
Jeb Bush is going to have to spend the duration of his campaign grappling with the looming presence of his older brother. From dynasty fatigue among voters wary of electing another Bush, to questions about every policy decision the former president made, George W. Bush's presence on the campaign trail likely would just exacerbate the liabilities. And while Hillary Clinton’s husband left the presidency a popular figure and has only seen his poll numbers improve, George W. Bush departed the White House with historically low popularity scores and seen only a minor rebound.
Jeb Bush appears willing to distance himself from his brother while not entirely giving him the boot. "I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man -- and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences," Bush said in a February speech.
The whole Bush family is showing a willingness to raise money for the coming presidential campaign. Former President George H.W. Bush will attend a fundraiser for Jeb Bush’s PAC Thursday night in Houston. The Bush patriarch -- who lost his bid for a second term to Bill Clinton -- remains popular with voters, but his age and recent illnesses are likely to keep him from being a factor on the campaign trail.
Both fundraisers are for Jeb Bush’s Right To Rise PAC, which the former Florida governor created as a launching point for a likely presidential campaign. He has been aggressively working to raise money and hire staff through the PAC in anticipation of an announcement, an effort to demonstrate his strength as a candidate.
It's still possible Jeb Bush can make his brother's presidency a net gain. The Bush family has an extensive donor network. Jeb Bush has been working to reactivate that network, which generously contributed to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, to scare other likely Republican candidates out of the race. The ready-made donor infrastructure could ultimately render most of the GOP field unable to compete. Romney found that after raising historic totals in 2012, some donors were proving more loyal to the Bush family.
There are legions of seasoned political strategists -- some who have worked at least three presidential campaigns -- who are ready to go back to work for the Bush family. George W. Bush was the last Republican to hold the White House. Many of the influential GOP-leaning professionals in Washington, like lobbyists and policy gurus, owe their rise to the Bushes. That kind of loyalty can’t be bought.
Plus for donors with establishment ties, memories of the last Bush administration are recalled with fondness. For those ready to see President Barack Obama’s departure from office, shelling out money to see a Republican retake the White House and rubbing elbows with the former president can be an alluring prospect. The fundraiser in Dallas Wednesday that includes both Bush brothers is selling tickets for $100,000 a couple -- and using it as a recruiting tool for bundlers.
But raising money might be all George W. Bush can do to help his brother. And that help could even start to wane as the election gets closer when the press pays more attention to the headliners at big-dollar fundraising events and often insists on admission.
“Jeb Bush has to be careful and strategic about using his brother in his campaign,” said David Redlawsk, a pollster at Rutgers University who previously worked at the University of Iowa. “For the right audiences, G. Bush could be a valuable asset during the primary season since Republicans are not necessarily negative about him.”
But even in the primary process -- where devoted Republicans are likely to think more highly of George W. Bush than the coveted swing voters of a general election -- there are a lot of risks for a brother act. The tea party crowd soured on the fiscal policies of the former president. And some blame his shortcomings for Obama's election.
“Dubya can do fundraisers and valuable behind the scenes tasks for Jeb, but putting him out in a very public way is a giant minus, even in the race for the GOP nomination,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “The tea party folks and quite a few other Republicans are not fans of Dubya's fiscal policies or even the Iraq War. In many ways George W. Bush's performance made Obama's election inevitable.”
The mere mention of George W. Bush is likely to be ripe for Democratic attacks in a general election. “Should Jeb make it to the fall of 2016, the Bush legacy will haunt him in many ways,” Sabato said. “Hillary will no doubt say, ‘Each President Bush has brought a deep recession and a Mideast War. Why would you want a third?’”