Prescott Bush — businessman, banker, father of George H. W. Bush and grandfather to Jeb and George W. Bush — was Connecticut’s senior senator for most of the 1950s. When George H. W. Bush first ran for the presidency in 1980, he ran as a Texan despite having been born in Massachusetts and lived in Connecticut. H. W. and his family moved to the Lone Star State after he served in World War II and graduated from Yale. So while George W. Bush was born in New Haven, he grew up mostly in Texas.
There’s significance to that. When George H. W. Bush won the presidency in 1988, Connecticut had voted Republican in 8 of the previous 11 presidential contests. It hasn’t since. The Bushes, like the Republican Party, moved south and west and became a dominant force in American politics.
When George W. Bush smiled and waved his way onto a stage in South Carolina on Monday night in an effort to bolster Jeb’s candidacy, there were a lot of observations that came easily. George W. Bush — in part due to enjoying the freedom of not being the candidate — seemed much more natural at outlining the case for his brother than Jeb has at any point over the last year. He did the best job that he possibly could ensuring wobbly South Carolina voters that electing another Bush would mean electing another Bush — that Jeb would be the same steady hand and affable leader that so many Republicans appreciated from 2001 to 2009. But given Jeb’s campaign so far, this is not necessarily an easy sell.
The other unsubtle point of W.’s speech was to undermine Donald Trump. With all of the haughtiness he could muster, he repeatedly contrasted Jeb with Trump, the latter being “empty rhetoric,” “bluster” and “theatrics.” He noted that the state’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, was the daughter of immigrants, saying “thank goodness” her family could come to America unlike those the Republican front-runner would keep out. Threads of anti-Trumpism ran throughout the speech, which concluded shortly before the release of another poll showing Trump with a wide lead in the state.
In a sense, though, George W. Bush’s plea wasn’t for Jeb. His plea was the same plea that Hillary Clinton has been making of late: A plea to return to the sanity of the presidential leadership standard that brought their two families’ last names to the White House for 20 of the last 28 years.
It was the plea of a family that weathered one political transformation and can’t figure out how to navigate this new one.
Jeb had avoided bringing W. on the campaign trail for months — worried, it seemed, about his brother’s slowly improving unpopularity and the general election implications. (W. is liked by Republicans, but not exactly adored — and Democrats are certainly not fans.) Jeb Bush became Jeb Exclamationpoint on the stump, until his still sliding poll numbers (and constant mockery from Trump) meant bringing out first his mother and then his brother. The only play he had left was to embrace his deep roots in the establishment, an admission he’s trotted out regularly recently. If he can’t out-Trump Trump, maybe he could at least out-establishment those other pretenders to the throne.
This is Clinton’s bind, too. She has the background, she put in the time, she has realistic expectations about what she could and couldn’t do as president of the United States. Bernie Sanders is no Donald Trump, to be sure, but he and Trump share a similar political mystery. No one thought they’d have a real shot because they weren’t presidential. They weren’t candidates who have roots in politics as usual — which, it turns out, sounds pretty good to voters.
A year ago, when a Bush-Clinton match-up seemed to be the most likely outcome of this year’s primaries, there were a lot of questions posed to voters about whether or not they’d hold a candidate’s family against him or her. There was some skepticism — people said they wanted change — but while running against vacuums which viable outsider candidates hadn’t yet filled, both also led their respective fields.
W.’s speech didn’t name Trump because it wasn’t about Trump. It was about what a president should and shouldn’t be. Donald Trump is not what a president should be, the argument seems to be. George H. W. Bush is. Bill Clinton is. George W. Bush is, too. (That it was W. establishing that presidential gold standard on Sunday night will no doubt cause liberals to marvel.) It was a rebuke of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and the full cast of characters who’ve emerged over the last four years to submit résumés for the biggest job in the country without going through the traditional application process.
Jeb Bush isn’t a good campaigner, but he’s a Bush. That was supposed to count for something. His family may have transitioned from being Connecticut bankers to being Texas oilmen, but they couldn’t transition from being Bushes to being Not Bushes any more than Hillary Clinton could not be a Clinton.
So all Jeb Bush could do, at last, was embrace it and hope that the crazy carousel that drifted away from those Clinton and Bush presidencies would come back around.