For Jeb, Bush name not such a burden

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) looks to be on the brink of declaring a 2016 presidential bid, a move that would be by far the biggest development so far in the race to succeed President Obama.

But one question hangs over everything: how will his last name affect his chances?

On Tuesday, Bush stated on Facebook that he had chosen to "actively explore" a White House quest, and that he would create a new leadership PAC in January to "help me facilitate conversations with citzens across America." 

The Facebook statement came on top of a growing body of evidence that Bush is getting into the race.

He announced over the weekend that he would release 250,000 emails from his tenure in Tallahassee — a decision that has no obvious rationale except to prepare the ground for a presidential bid.

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Bush also said he would release an e-book regarding his policy positions next year. Book releases are a time-honored gambit of presidential contenders.

On Monday, he delivered a commencement address at the University of South Carolina. Although the speech was not overtly political, the fact that it was made at all, in an early-primary state, attracted plenty of speculation.

In addition, virtually the entire Bush family has indicated they would like to see Jeb run.

“He knows I want him to run,” former President George W. Bush told CNN’s “State of the Union” earlier this month. Another brother, Neil, even told Bloomberg TV that the family matriarch, Barbara Bush, who had previously expressed skepticism about family dynasties in American politics, had “come around” to the idea.

The argument that American voters would bridle at the notion of another Bush in the White House has two elements.

One is that voters would be instinctively disinclined to back anyone from a family that has already given the nation two presidents, George W. and George H.W.

The second is that the Bush name is particularly corrosive, given the deeply contentious presidency of George W., and the dismal approval ratings that dogged his final years in office.

On the first point, Jeb Bush might get help from an unlikely quarter — Democrats in general, and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE in particular. If Clinton runs and becomes her party’s nominee, voters won’t have a choice between the Bush brand on one hand and a fresh face on the other. Together, Bush and Clinton could neutralize each other’s weakness.

“You take the legacy issue off the table if it’s Hillary versus Jeb,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “She can’t throw stones in that glass house because it will only damage her ambitions.”

Meanwhile, some GOP strategists suggest that the Bush family brand has recovered from its lowest points, which were hit in the waning days of George W.’s presidency.

“The Bush name is obviously going to be one of Jeb’s biggest hurdles, but it’s also going to be one of his biggest assets,” said Ford O’Connell, another Republican strategist.

In early 2009, when George W. Bush left office with the country mired in an unpopular war and the economy in freefall, the conventional wisdom was that he’d permanently spoiled Jeb’s presidential ambitions.

But Republicans are confident that with George W. six years removed from the White House, he’s no longer the drag that he once was. They say President Obama has worn out the “Bush card” by blaming his predecessor at every turn.

Obama has “beat that drum, blaming [George W.] Bush for a lot of the country’s problems, but it hasn’t worked,” Bonjean said. “We now have a Republican Congress and people are tired of him playing the blame game.”

If Bush chooses to run, his family ties will likely benefit him in other ways, too.

He’ll be able to leverage his name and family network to raise tens of millions of dollars, and already appears to have a lock on the GOP’s mega-donors.

Bush will also likely be able to count on having the super-PAC Crossroads GPS, which is run by his brother’s svengali, Karl Rove, in his corner. 

To be sure, however, not every challenge associated with the Bush name has disappeared.

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods, such as waterboarding — one of the most controversial legacies of George W. Bush’s "war on terror."

In addition, the nation is still recovering, six years on, from the financial collapse that marred the final days of the Bush presidency in 2008.

“Democrats are going to resurrect those issues, and that’s something Jeb is going to have to be prepared to answer for if he decides to run,” Bonjean said. “He’ll have to differentiate himself and talk about how he’d do things differently and provide his own vision going forward.”

Still, George W. Bush has made remarkable strides in repairing his image. In a Gallup poll in June, his favorability rating was a net positive, with 53 percent saying they view him favorably, including a majority of independents.

Jeffrey Jones, a Gallup analyst, says George W. Bush’s approval ratings aren’t much worse than those of President Clinton at similar stages of their post-presidencies.

“Over time people forget about the controversies and scandals presidents had while in office and a kind of nostalgia sets in,” he said.

Republicans say the window is open now for Jeb to define himself separate from his family.

“He needs to make the point that you’re not voting for Bush, you’re voting for Jeb,” O’Connell said.

This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. on Tuesday, December 16.