For much of the 2016 Republican primary, conventional wisdom has had it that former president George W. Bush is something of a liability to his brother Jeb's struggling campaign.I'm sure most of you think this idea is laughable. I disagree -- I think it could work, and I've said so for months, although Jeb is so hapless he'd never deploy W in an effective way.
But for at least one top Republican in South Carolina -- the state that holds the American South's premier presidential nominating contest and only early state that has never dealt a primary defeat to a member of the Bush family -- the 43rd president could be the party establishment's answer to stop front-runner Donald Trump in his tracks.
“The game changer is: Will 43 engage?” Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said in an interview about the former president, who was the nation's 43rd commander-in-chief. “If 43 engages, it will matter for his brother, but, really, it will matter for the entire team.”
What Jeb should have done all along was to say that W was a great president and declare that he doesn't care if it's politically incorrect to say so. That's what Jeb will never do: tap into Republicans' belief that they're being denied the right to believe what they want to believe because evil liberals won't let them.
Jeb should have embraced the war, which conservatives loved. Jeb should have rejected all criticism of W. If he was attacked for any of this, he should have doubled down.
That's what Donald Trump would have done if he had W as a brother.
The Bloomberg story I quote above notes that W still isn't very popular with the general public, but is still quite popular among Republicans:
A Bloomberg Politics national poll taken in November shows that the popularity of former President George W. Bush, a record-low when he left office in 2009, remains underwater with the public at large: He got a 45 percent favorable to 50 percent unfavorable rating. But when only Republicans are asked, the picture is starkly different: 77 percent of members of his own party give the former president a favorable rating, making him the most popular Republican in the survey.That general-public number is what give Jeb pause -- and that's why every deploy-W trial balloon Jeb has floated has suggested that W will be brought out only once we're past the New Hampshire primary, which allows voting across party lines. Every story has suggested that Jeb won't use W until South Carolina.
But it's thinking along those lines that explains why Jeb is an also-ran. Look at Trump: He attacked Megyn Kelly even though he knows Fox News is extremely popular on the right. He attacked the military record of John McCain even though conservatives general consider the troops to be sacrosanct. If you never admit error, haters back down. Trump knows that. Jeb doesn't.
If Jeb had passionately defended his brother's administration all throughout this campaign, and had embraced him all along, by now the "liberal media" might be running thinkpieces with titles like "Did We Misunderestimate George W. Bush?" At the very least, Republican voters always cheer when GOP pols demand a relitigation of a question that seems settled. Think Obamacare. Think Benghazi.
Remember the only good moment Jeb has had in this campaign:
In that September debate, he got a huge round of applause for saying his brother "kept us safe." It's a ridiculous assertion -- but he just should have kept making it. By now, Jeb might be getting an anti-"PC" bump from GOP voters -- and Chuck Todd might be telling us that there's quite a bit of truth in what Jeb says.