When Jeb Bush first ran for governor of Florida in 1994, his father had recently been booted out of the White House, and the 40-something son very much wanted to be seen as his own man. So, when it came time to design his bumper stickers, he went with a red background and “Jeb!” in chunky, white letters.
There was no mention of his famous surname or his party, and the jolting exclamation point was the opposite of his family’s Kennebunkport reserve. Bush ended up losing that race but keeping the brand, reusing the logo in his 1998 political comeback and in his 2002 gubernatorial reelection campaign.
Now “Jeb!” is back.
Bush revealed Sunday on Twitter that he’s reviving his “Seinfeld”-era old-school insignia to be the symbol of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, which he will announce Monday in Miami. This time, the colors have been flipped: ruby characters over white, underlined by “2016” in navy blue.
The choice was perhaps a natural one for Bush, 62, recalling his early tenure in Tallahassee, long before the rise of the tea party, when he was the definition of a national conservative star and his family was as popular as ever with GOP voters.
But it showed that as far as Bush has come — and with all the millions of dollars he has raised — he is still struggling to address the same issues that he encountered two decades ago: an electorate with pockets of Bush fatigue, and his cerebral persona that at times bores activists and could benefit from a kick of energy, punctuated or not.
The connotations of “Jeb!” over the years are also useful windows into Bush’s political evolution. Each time he has reframed it, he was reluctant to run as a Bush.
At the start, the jagged letters and exclamation point were a nod toward what Bush described in 1994 as his “head-banging” conservatism. His ideological politics contrasted with the to-the-manner-born pragmatism of his father, George H.W. Bush. (Jeb’s name comes from the initials for his given name, John Ellis Bush.)
Following his defeat, Bush traveled across the state, rebuilding his relationships and smoothing out his edges. Rather than running as a hard-liner in 1998, he cast himself as a levelheaded reformer, and “Jeb!” alluded to the grass-roots movement he built during his political winter. In 2002, “Jeb!” signaled a celebration — a reelection never in doubt and momentum for a possible national campaign in the years to come.
Longtime Bush ally Mike Murphy, who has worked with him since 1998 and currently is managing the Bush-allied super PAC Right to Rise, wrote Sunday on Twitter that dusting off the calling card provided Bush with a “clean, easy to see from far away, upbeat, and most of all, consistent” emblem. Other Bush backers described it as a nostalgic shibboleth and a reminder of what they see as his lack of airs — just Jeb.
A number of Republicans, however, sensed unease behind the jingly “Jeb!” weeks after Bush stumbled repeatedly when asked about his position on the Iraq invasion championed by his brother.
“The most important thing about the Jeb logo isn’t the exclamation point that is there. It’s the last name that isn’t there,” wrote David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.
Commentators mostly teased. “Dog, your logo looks like a detergent brand,” wrote CNBC pundit Josh Brown. Some bloggers said it brought to mind the Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski playfully inserted “Jeb!” into a Batman comic. GQ magazine quickly wrote up a mocking mini-screenplay about how the slogan was likely hatched.
The nearly forgotten 1996 presidential campaign of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was another common reference, as political junkies noted how much “Jeb!” echoed Alexander’s slogan, “Lamar!” No word yet on whether Bush plans to follow the folksy playbook of Alexander, who wore plaid shirts on the campaign trail.
Bush, of course, is one of many presidential contenders who have drawn attention and barbs this year for their logos. In an era where every facet of the campaign brings scrutiny, reporters, donors, and yes, even voters, have been inspecting them and searching for clues on strategy and pitch.
Republicans, in a wink toward their liberty-loving base, have embraced flames this cycle. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has a tuft of fire above “Rand” in his logo, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) uses shapely, multicolored flames in his that have been compared to a swirl of ice cream from Dairy Queen. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), as he did in 2012, chose to identify his campaign with a soaring bald eagle.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “H” logo with an arrow emblazoned across has been hotly debated, down to the direction of the arrow (pointing right) and the arrow’s color (red). Like Bush, her campaign also abstains from using her full name, instead going with “Hillary for America.”
As the flurry of words on “Jeb!” became a Twitter blizzard Sunday, Murphy pushed back on the “Lamar!” chatter and took a shot at Clinton. “Gotta say, Hillary logo looks like parking lot directions for a French hospital,” he wrote. No exclamation point was necessary.