BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — Jeb Bush came here this weekend to bask in the glow of his extended family. His sister called him “remarkable and brilliant,” a president-in-waiting. His mother said she had changed her mind, that it was time after all for another Bush in the White House. And his father, the 41st president, cheered him on.
Yet even as Bush embraced his dynastic family as relatives, he tried not to get saddled by them as politicians. When a reporter asked how he might have handled differently his brother’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said: “I won’t talk about the past; I’ll talk about the future. . . . It’s not about re-litigating anything in the past.”
But it won’t be so easy to escape the burdens of being a Bush. Wrestling with how to handle the legacies of the two previous, controversial presidents in the family, Bush and his advisers say one of his foremost challenges will be to establish his own political identity distinct from theirs, just as he did in two successful campaigns for governor in Florida.
The campaign stickers his supporters wore back then, and which they are sporting anew these days, say “Jeb!” with no hint of the Bush name that comes after.
There are other ways the Bush team thinks the Jeb brand could be unique. His father, George H.W. Bush, governed as a free-spending, tax-raising, foreign-policy pragmatist, while Jeb Bush aims to offer himself as a small-government conservative reformer motivated chiefly by domestic concerns.
Where older brother George W. Bush was widely regarded as an incurious and at times inept executive, Jeb Bush believes he might appeal to voters as a competent and detail-oriented leader with wonkish curiosity and a zest for big ideas.
The 41st president presented himself as an patrician patriot and public servant, while the 43rd styled himself as a brush-clearing cowboy with Texas bravado. The Bush who hopes to become the 45th president thinks he can do so by portraying himself as the embodiment of modern America’s cultural melange: a fluent Spanish speaker and Catholic convert who married a Mexican immigrant, made Miami his home and preaches a gospel of inclusion and opportunity.
“Those who have reached premature conclusions about ‘the Bushes’ will be disarmed when, through the course of the campaign, they come to realize who the real Jeb Bush is and how similar their goals and aspirations are to his,” said Al Cardenas, a Bush friend and political adviser for three decades.
As a scion of the most powerful family in Republican politics, Bush, 62, has clear advantages, namely a vast and loyal network of donors, policy gurus, operatives and grass-roots activists he has begun to mobilize. He is far ahead of his would-be rivals in fundraising, with the possibility of raising as much as $100 million by spring.
But his family associations also bring significant challenges and risks. George H.W. Bush lost his reelection campaign and was blamed for a weak economy, while George W. Bush left office in 2009 amid the Great Recession with a dismal approval rating of 34 percent. Both times, Democrats have been elected to fix the problems — in the case of the former, it was Bill Clinton, whose wife Jeb Bush could face in the 2016 general election.
Time has brought a renaissance of warm feelings for the elder Bush in particular, but the brutality of a presidential campaign will test that. Already, Democrats are trying to saddle Jeb Bush with his brother’s record, both domestic and foreign, including the deeply unpopular Iraq war.
“It’s not that he shares his brother’s last name, it’s that he shares his brother’s economic worldview, that he shares his brother’s commitment to helping the wealthiest at the expense of everybody else,” said Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “Does his last name help make that connection? We can make that connection without it — and we will.”
Elleithee said that a rare joint interview the Bush brothers did with CNN in 2010 provides ammunition. In it, Jeb Bush said: “I’m the only Republican that was in office when he was in office as president that never disagreed with him. . . . It’s just, till death do us part.”
Jeb — an acronym of his full name, John Ellis Bush — acknowledges the challenge.
“If I have any degree of self-awareness, this would be the place where it might want to be applied,” he said in a Feb. 4 appearance in Detroit.
In his gubernatorial races, Bush said, “I wasn’t just the brother of George W. and the son of my beloved dad. I was my own person. I earned it by working hard to connect with people on a level that truly mattered. That experience on a national scale has got to be part of the strategy.”
Ana Navarro, a Bush friend and adviser, said, “The minute he walks into a room and opens his mouth, people will realize how simplistic it is to imply that he’s reading off some sort of Bush family instruction manual.”
So far, Bush is attempting to use his family name as an advantage, developing familiarity with his audiences by joshing about famous relatives.
At a commencement address in December, he told an oft-repeated joke about his mother, Barbara, the notably brusque former first lady. He said he sought her advice about what to tell the graduates and she told him, “Jeb, speak for about 10 minutes and then sit down and shut up.”
In San Francisco last month, Bush lit up the crowd when he invoked another, less-known sibling: “A lot of people ask about my brother. . . . Since you asked, Marvin is doing spectacularly well.”
In Bonita Springs on Friday night, Bush joined relatives for the Barbara Bush Foundation’s annual charity dinner celebrating literacy. As he addressed attendees, Bush recalled his mother’s 2013 remark that “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House.
At that, Barbara Bush popped up on two jumbo screens via Skype.
“Jeb!” she interrupted him. “Jeb, it’s Mom. Listen, what do you mean, too many Bushes? . . . I changed my mind!” The nation’s problems are so big, she said, “it doesn’t matter what your last name is.”
“Hey, Mom,” he replied, “can I get that in writing?”
Polls reveal a harsh distaste for dynasties, and this extends into the Democratic Party as well, where former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of a former president, is the presumed front-runner.
At a January focus group with voters in the swing state of Colorado, participants had a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of another President Bush. “No, thank you,” one said. “Again?” asked another.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), also a likely GOP presidential candidate, has attacked Bush over the dynasty issue. His political action committee last month released a fake phone call between Bush and Clinton. “Hillary, there hasn’t been a Republican White House without a Bush since 1977, and we’re ready to be back,” a Bush impersonator says.
“There is understandable resistance among American voters to the notion of political dynasties,” said Mark McKinnon, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush. But, he added, “if you do happen to be part of a dynasty, what better time to run than when there is one running for the other party’s nomination.”
The Bush family is sensitive to any suggestion that Jeb’s lineage entitles him to the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. Family members also are sensitive to comparisons being made among Jeb and his brother and father — and they are, in the words of one aide, “dismissive of the psychobabble.”
In Detroit, Bush said, “I’m pretty proud of 41 and 43. . . . I know that’s hard for the political world to accept, but it’s pretty easy for me to love them, and I love them unconditionally. Now the therapists can opine about that.”
Both former presidents Bush are said to be energized about Jeb Bush’s likely campaign, and they fully expect him to differentiate himself in substance and style.
“It’s not like there are these big family dinners where they all decide who’s going to plot out which position on which issue,” said Jim McGrath, the longtime spokesman for George H.W. Bush. “It’s assumed that you’ll cut your own path, be your own man and run on your own ideas.”
In 1998, when Jeb Bush was running for his first term as governor, the elder Bush wrote a letter to him and to George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, both running that year for reelection:
“At some point, both of you may want to say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with my Dad on that point’ or ‘Frankly I think Dad was wrong on that.’ Do it. Chart your own course, not just on the issues but on defining yourselves.”
Jeb Bush followed his father’s advice. In his 1998 campaign, he created his own identity by focusing on Florida-specific issues. He visited some 250 schools to promote state education reform, for example.
“He was the only Bush in Florida at the time, so for him, it was an open field,” said Justin Sayfie, a former spokesman and adviser. “He was building a reputation on his own, distinct from what his father and brother were doing in other parts of the country.”
In office, Bush tried to distinguish himself further by being personally accessible to residents via e-mail. A hands-on manager, he won praise for his leadership through a string of intense hurricanes in 2004, a year before his brother was derided for his handling of Hurricane Katrina.
“There’s a bright line you could draw in the styles of the three men,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “Jeb is the guy who goes home at night and reads the 400-page policy paper, not just the three-paragraph executive summary.”
Bush’s drive to be seen as his own man extended to the most superficial aspects of his politics, including that “Jeb!” campaign logo. At a Florida fundraiser last week, supporters revived the logo with stickers that read, “Jeb! ’16.” Bush family friends said they expect he will adopt a similar motif for his presidential run.
“It’s an advantage for him,” Ron Kaufman, an adviser and friend of George H.W. Bush, said of the logo. “When people hear Jeb, they know who he is. They don’t say, ‘Which Jeb?’ And quite frankly, it’s a nice psychological difference that this is about Jeb — exclamation point — not anybody else.”