After spending months distancing himself from his family’s political legacy, Jeb Bush surprised a group of Manhattan financiers this week by naming his brother, former president George W. Bush, as his most influential counselor on U.S.-Israel policy.
“If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him,” Bush said Tuesday, speaking to a crowd of high-powered investors at the Metropolitan Club, according to four people present. The Republicans in the room spoke on the condition of anonymity to divulge information about the private meeting.
The remark came as part of an answer to a question about Bush’s political aides and their policy views, and whether he relies on the guidance of former secretary of state James Baker, guests said. Baker’s role in Bush’s orbit has been the source of consternation for some major GOP donors, who were upset that the 85-year-old ex-diplomat spoke to a left- leaning Israeli advocacy group in March.
Jeb Bush said that Baker is not one of his close advisers and that he leans on his brother for insights when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.
Embracing George W. Bush as a foreign-policy confidant is a risky and unexpected move for the former Florida governor as he readies for a likely presidential bid. While the former president’s approval ratings have improved since he left office in 2009, his foreign-policy legacy — particularly the long war in Iraq — remains deeply unpopular. He has also become anathema to some conservative activists for presiding over an increase in the federal debt, among other policies.
Jeb Bush has surrounded himself with many of his brother’s advisers and has endorsed many foreign-policy positions that mirror those of the former president. At the same time, Bush has repeatedly stressed that he has his own worldview.
“I love my brother. I love my dad,” he told an audience in Chicago in February. “I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make. But I am my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”
For his part, George W. Bush said last month that he planned to stay away from the campaign trail because voters do not like political dynasties.
Jeb Bush’s revelation that he seeks out his brother about Israel and the Middle East indicates that the siblings may be closer than portrayed. The relationship is often described as cordial and warm but distant on policy matters.
Tim Miller, a spokesman, played down the significance of Bush’s comment.
“Governor Bush has said before that his brother is the greatest ally to Israel in presidential history, he admires his stalwart support for our ally, and that is in line with his commitment to standing with Israel in the face of great threats to their security and our own,” Miller said in a statement Thursday.
Tuesday’s session was organized by GOP mega-donor Paul Singer and his advisers so their associates could hear from Bush. Similar meetings have been held with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, three of Bush’s potential Republican rivals in the 2016 race.
The question that led to Bush’s response was about how much he relied on Baker, a respected party figure and longtime Bush family friend. During his speech in March to the group J Street, Baker criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not backing a two-state solution.
Bush said that he respected Baker but maintained that he is not part of his foreign-policy team.
Bush also expressed regret for the way he has unveiled his staff hires and advisers and said the lengthy list he made public in February, which included Baker, was not an accurate representation of whom he reaches out to when he’s considering Israel- related issues.
Participants said the reception at the club was mostly encouraging, but one attendee said he was “stunned” to hear Jeb Bush specifically mention George W. Bush as his go-to adviser. “I started looking around and wondering if people were recording it. It was jarring,” the attendee said. “If video of it got out, it’d be devastating.”
Others saw it differently.
“It was a very positive response, just based on faces around the room,” a second attendee said. “There didn’t seem to be any sort of negative reaction.”
Jeb Bush’s comments were widely interpreted as an effort to dispel lingering concerns among Israel hawks that Baker’s comments were indicative of Bush’s own views. Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, is one of many top GOP money players who fund conservative pro-Israel groups and candidates who favor a hard-line stance against Iran.
A majority of registered voters still have unfavorable views of how George W. Bush handled his job as president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March. Nevertheless, there remains deep affection within the GOP for George W. Bush, with 87 percent approving of his presidential tenure.
“For all of the negatives in how George W. Bush is remembered in foreign policy, people who are supportive of Israel remember him as supportive of Israel,” said Danielle Pletka, who studies national security at the American Enterprise Institute. “For Bush, he has to find a way to deflect the festering question of his relationship with James Baker.”
George W. Bush drew enthusiastic reviews for his appearance last month before the Republican Jewish Coalition, where he answered questions about his time in the White House and his post-presidency.
But during that appearance, he said he planned to stay away from the 2016 fray, noting that voters have an aversion to the idea of political royalty.
The former president underscored the same point during a speech to a conference of health-care technology experts in April.
“The role of family is not to be a political adviser or a policy adviser — there are plenty of those around,” said George W. Bush, according to Politico. “The role is to say, ‘Hey man, I love you.’ ”
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.