Jeb Bush announced he was ending his presidential campaign on Saturday. (Reuters/Randall Hill)

A year ago, the Republican elite was busy preparing the way for Jeb Bush to lead the party into the election this November. As the son and brother of former presidents, he raised no less than $120 million in about six months.

On Saturday, after finishing in a distant fourth place in South Carolina’s GOP primary election, Bush ended his campaign. His decision was an acknowledgment that his family no longer leads the Republican Party and that no amount of wealth can buy the influence they lost.

In part, the failure of Bush’s campaign was his own failure. His sober, rational demeanor never really appealed to a frustrated primary electorate, and Donald Trump was able to mock him ruthlessly as a “low-energy” candidate.

At the same time, the former Florida governor was never able to escape his association with the policies that defined his brother’s presidency — policies that GOP voters in every state are rejecting forcefully. Indeed, opposition to the legacy of the George W. Bush administration is one way of defining the new direction of the Republican Party.


No candidate in the race was prepared for GOP voters’ opposition to immigration, with the exception of Trump. The real-estate magnate has exploited the issue to secure his dominant position in the race so far. The other candidates have been forced to put immigration at the top of the agenda.

Unfortunately for Bush, his brother’s actions in office were what first incited Republican anger at illegal immigration.

In the midterm election in 2006, Democrats looked set to win control of Congress, and there was talk of a bipartisan compromise on immigration with the Bush administration.

Conservative radio hosts and opinion makers were having none of it, and neither were Republican voters. In a column on that year’s GOP primaries, pollster David Hill cited “explosions of emotion over immigration.”

“For the first time ever, illegal immigration became a hot topic and many Republican nomination seekers at every office level sought to exploit the issue,” he wrote in The Hill in 2006.

George W. Bush’s support for citizenship for undocumented migrants opened a new rift between the parties. Up until then, Republicans and Democrats had not differed in their views on immigration, according to the Pew Research Center. In October 2006, however, a Pew poll revealed that Republicans had become 11 percentage points more likely than Democrats to describe immigrants as a burden to American society.

Data from Gallup that year show that nearly 1 in 5 Americans named immigration or illegal aliens as the most important problem facing the country — three times more than in any poll that Gallup had conducted since the organization first asked the question in 1993.

[How much Republicans’ views on immigration have changed]

The controversy receded, but not completely. In a Pew poll conducted last October, no fewer than 57 percent of Republicans describe immigrants as a burden to American society.

In this climate, no politician who had once called illegal immigration “an act of love” and who, above all, was the brother of George W. Bush, could have had much chance of success at the polls.


George W. Bush’s conservatism had a cosmopolitan tinge. Not only did he hope to incorporate Hispanic migrants into the American community, but he was also careful not to alienate Muslims. He repeatedly made clear, with his memorable declaration of a “war on terror,” that Islam was not an enemy of the United States.

Six days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the president visited a mosque. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”

“The war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims,” he added a few days later.

Terminology is just as important in the current GOP primary as it was for President Bush. Now, though, the Republican candidates are insisting on an explicit connection between violent extremism and the Islamic faith. They’ve criticized President Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for eschewing words such as “radical Islamic terrorism.”

“They won’t even call it by its name,” Sen. Ted Cruz has said.

Trump, of course, has gone even further, proposing to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States. This ban, he has said, would be temporary, but “total and complete.” The ban is very popular with Republican voters. Three-quarters of those who cast ballots in South Carolina’s primary Saturday, which Trump won handily, support it, according to an exit poll conducted by CBS News.

Unlike his brother, Jeb Bush has made a point of using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet he has also severely criticized Trump for his proposal, making a similar argument as his brother did about the importance of Muslim cooperation to the fight, both at home and in the Middle East. GOP voters haven’t been persuaded.


Far more important than President Bush’s choice of words on the problem of jihadist terrorism were his actions, and above all, his decision to invade Iraq. As Jeb Bush was preparing to formally begin his campaign, he stumbled repeatedly when asked about his brother’s choice, offering four different answers to the same question over the course of one week last May.

“Knowing what we now know,” he finally clarified, “I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

In a debate in Greenville, S.C., the week before the primary, Trump criticized Bush at length for his brother’s decision to go to war. “Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump said.

During the Bush administration, the Republican rank and file might have regarded a comment like that one as liberal, traitorous and un-American, but voters in South Carolina didn’t seem to mind. A Gallup poll in June found that 31 percent of Republicans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. Immediately after the invasion in March 2003, 96 percent supported the war, Gallup found.

One indicator of Republicans’ ambivalence about the legacy of the war in Iraq has been that Bush and the other candidates have been cautious about advocating for boots on the ground in Syria’s civil war. Bush has said that regional allies should supply “the bulk” of any ground force. Likewise, a document issued by Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign, for example, suggests that U.S. troops should mainly serve as support. Cruz, meanwhile, has criticized the “military adventurism” of people he called “the more aggressive Washington neo-cons.”

Republicans’ opinions have changed less on other issues that defined George W. Bush’s presidency. The candidates are steadfast in their opposition to gay marriage, which, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argues, was an important principle for the former president. Cruz, who is doing well in the polls, supports a plan to reform Social Security similar to the one George W. Bush advocated unsuccessfully during his second term. The candidates are still calling for tax cuts that would probably increase the national debt substantially, as did those that Bush signed into law.

Overall, though, Republican primary voters are rejecting the kind of conservative worldview that shaped George W. Bush’s policies — military intervention abroad, combined with an emphasis on inclusion and tolerance at home.

Jeb Bush could have been a better candidate, to be sure. Given his last name and the change in attitudes among GOP constituents, though, it’s hard to imagine how he ever could have won.

More from The Washington Post:

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Fall of the House of Bush: How last name and Donald Trump doomed Jeb