NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—Time and again this election, Jeb Bush has been outshone by more charismatic candidates. On Monday, there was a slight variation on the story. Once again, Jeb was outdone by a much more talented politician, but this time, it was a backer and not a rival: Jeb’s big brother George W. Bush.
It was the former president’s first appearance on the campaign trail this cycle, and it came just a few days before the South Carolina Republican primary, which is shaping up to be a make-or-break moment for Jeb. President Bush, along with his wife Laura and Senator Lindsey Graham, helped pack 3,000 people in for a rally in North Charleston. It’s proof that his popularity endures in South Carolina, but it’s too early to tell whether that popularity will prove transferrable.
Speaking for 20 minutes, George W. showed why—despite being “misunderestimated,” a malapropism he repeated for comic effect in North Charleston—he was such a successful politician. Bush is a natural, the kind of guy who can successfully kick off his stump speech with a lengthy anecdote about pig manure, and he seemed delighted to be back on the stump. Every other line seemed to elicit either laughs or applause. Mentioning his writing projects, he said, “They didn’t use to think I could read, much less write!” He quipped that the signature on his paintings was worth far more than the art.
That made him a particularly tough act for Jeb to follow. While the younger Bush—going without glasses—was reasonably energetic, his wonky technocrat act simply doesn’t provide the populist spark that his brother effortlessly delivers. Jeb offered a South Carolina-pitched variation on his stump speech, including plenty on national defense, strengthening the military, and overhauling the VA. It ended with the story of Denisha Merriweather, a familiar Jeb anecdote: inspirational, in its way, but complex and long, with none of the pith of George W.
Too many words have been spilled on the Freudian theater of the Bush family, and especially the tension between George, the son who was never supposed to be president, and Jeb, the son who was, but seeing them on-stage back to back provides clear enough evidence why George served two terms and Jeb is struggling to hang on in the Republican primary. George W., though, was doing his best for his little brother. The former president has been described as “bewildered” by the course of the primary so far, which has elevated Ted Cruz, a former aide whom Bush dislikes, and Donald Trump, the loudmouth businessman who represents practically Bush’s polar opposite (no compassion, fierce opposition to foreign intervention, antipathy to immigrants, a very different accent, and a successful business career). Bush tried to make his brother seem a compelling alternative.
“Being president requires sound judgment and good ideas. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jeb Bush has the experience and the judgment to be president,” George W. said, rejecting criticism of insiders. “If serving as president makes me a part of the so-called establishment, I proudly carry that label,” he said.
There wasn’t a mention of Barack Obama or of Hillary Clinton or of Bernie Sanders, but there were plenty of lines that seemed aimed directly at both Cruz and Trump.
“Jeb is man of deep and humble faith that reveals itself through good works, not loud words,” the former president said. “I understand that Americans are angry and frustrated. But we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our frustration.”
The great virtue of nominating Jeb, George W. said, was that he could actually triumph in a general election: “We need to elect somebody who can win in November. All the talk doesn’t matter if we can’t win. We need somebody who can take a positive message across the country.”
But that overlooks the huge stone in Jeb Bush’s passway: the primary electorate. Bush is stuck in a doom loop. Almost every voter with whom I spoke seemed to really like Jeb, and to think that he’d be a good president. But they valued electability, and they doubted Jeb could win the primary election. As long as they doubt, they’re unwilling to commit to him, which just makes it harder for him to win the primary. Bush will only bounce back if he can break the loop.
It was a very Bushy crowd: Lots of veterans; lots of men in double-breasted blazers; some veterans in double-breasted blazers; plenty of Vera Bradley bags; young boys in monogrammed sport coats with bright-colored pants. Volunteers were generally easy to pick out: They were the clean-cut young men in khakis and either boat shoes or duck boots. Perhaps needless to say, it was overwhelmingly white. Yet while George W. Bush was a strong enough draw to get people to the rally, he wasn’t enough to persuade all of them to back his brother.
“He’s such a boss. He’s just so relatable,” Taylor Mason marveled about George W. as he left the rally. Mason is shopping for a candidate: Having been Carly Fiorina’s state director until she left the race last week, he’s suddenly uncommitted. “Jeb’s a really, really smart guy,” Mason said. “I don’t think his delivery is the best, but that’s not what really matters.” But he was going to withhold judgment until he’d had a chance to see John Kasich and Marco Rubio.
Some attendees came mostly to see the former president. Ron Rash sported a black “W” ball cap, but he wasn’t quite so enthused about the younger Bush.
“I’m a big W fan, supporting Rubio,” Rash told me. “Jeb would be fine, if he could get some energy.” Rash worried that the candidate just didn’t get what was going on in the country. “I just think Jeb is not listening to the anger,” Rash said, but he dismissed Trump on the basis that anger alone isn’t a policy. “I want us to be one nation under God, not one nation under Trump. He’s not a conservative.”
Stephen Townsend was feeling similarly. Was he committed to Jeb? “I’m committed to the Republican Party,” he said. One of the things he likes about Jeb, he said, is the network that he’d bring to the Oval Office with him, something he thought had undermined Barack Obama. “The current president, he was a junior senator,” he said. “He lacked the experience, the foreign policy, the connections. Jeb can lean on his father and brother for experience.”
The question of how George W. Bush’s experience resonates with the electorate is a complicated one. In South Carolina, the former president is a popular figure, and his reputation has rebounded somewhat nationwide. But there’s a reason he hasn’t been on the trail yet, which is that the campaign is wary of his influence. Jeb Bush has fought a tortured battle with his brother’s legacy, at times insisting he’s his own man and at others praising his brother. He has waffled on how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Iraq war. It’s only now, with the race on the line and few other tricks working, that Jeb Bush has brought the former president along.
The Iraq war was a major point of contention in Saturday’s debate, as Donald Trump took the gamble of turning it into a bludgeon against Jeb. “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake, alright?” he said “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction—there were none. And they knew there were none.” (George W. let Jeb respond to that Monday. “I thought it was a little strange that a frontrunning candidate would attack the president who kept us safe while he was building a reality-TV show,” Jeb said, sounding genuinely incredulous.)
Even if they’re not personally bothered by the war or by complaints about a Bush family dynasty, and even if they adore the former president, the people who came to see him Monday aren’t politically naïve. George W. Bush remains highly unpopular with Democrats and independents, and many Tea Party Republicans dismiss him as a free-spending big-government disaster.
“My concern with Jeb: Can he win? It’s the dynasty issue,” said Mary Prentice, who’d driven from Lynchburg, Virginia, to attend. “If his last name wasn’t Bush—I like the Bush family. I’m just not sure the mainstream public is ready.”
It was a familiar refrain: Sure, I admire the Bush family, but I don’t think other people do. What was remarkable was how many people, even at a Jeb Bush rally, felt drawn to Trump, who has become Bush’s arch nemesis on debate stages and on the stump. A poll released Monday illustrated their divergent fates, placing Trump’s support at 35 percent in South Carolina, with Jeb tied for last with just 7 percent support. Where Bush inspired lukewarm fondness, Trump inspired more passion—often a guilty love.
Helen Mahoney brought her teenage daughter to see Bush, and she was thinking about voting for him. But she was thinking about the frontrunner, too. “Trump has brought up everything we feel. I really think he cares about America,” she said. “I don’t like the way he says it.”
Franny Russell told me she’s pretty much always decided on a candidate by this stage in a primary year, but she was still wavering. The fact that Lindsey Graham and David Wilkins, the popular former speaker of the state house and ambassador to Canada, had endorsed Jeb was a powerful sign, but she couldn’t commit, not yet. “Trump is saying all the right things, but I don’t see myself voting for him,” she said. “It’s almost taboo to think of voting for him.”
In other words, Mahoney and Russell agreed with George W. Bush’s critique of Trump as a loose cannon with too dour an outlook, but there’s a difference between making an effective case against Trump and making an affirmative case for Bush.