Jeb Bush has made South Carolina a referendum on his brother’s presidency

By Matt Purple, February 16, 2016

Human beings are nostalgic creatures. We’re wired to look kindly upon the past, to remember it as being better than it actually was. Conservatives in particular can fall victim to nostalgia: we seek to preserve our history, which can sometimes lead us to romanticize it.

It’s that nostalgia that Jeb Bush is counting on in South Carolina this week. Yesterday, the beleaguered Republican presidential candidate appeared onstage in North Charleston with his brother, former president George W., in an attempt to shore up his stagnating poll numbers. Jeb has staked everything on South Carolina, hoping the state’s veteran-heavy electorate and fondness for Dubya translate into his first primary win of the campaign season.

George W. didn’t disappoint. “Real strength, strength of purpose, comes from integrity and character,” he declared. “In my experience the strongest person usually isn’t the loudest person in the room.” He recalled the 9/11 attacks, told several jokes at his own expense, and touted his brother’s faith. It called back everything that was good about the Bush administration—the mettlesome response to the World Trade Center attacks, the sense that a decent man was in the White House—while papering over the messy business of the Iraq war that ultimately defined it.

It was an audacious speech and part of an even more audacious political strategy. Between the event last night and his unflappable defense of his brother at last weekend’s debate, Jeb has turned South Carolina into a referendum on George W.’s presidency. This is Jeb pushing all his chips to the center of the table. He’s betting that there’s still enough nostalgia for the Bush family among Republican voters to propel him over the top.

Will his gamble pay off? The early signs don’t look good. Donald Trump has lost ground in South Carolina since his boisterous debate performance, but he still has hefty double-digit leads over second-place finisher Ted Cruz, according to the two polls that have been taken since Saturday. Meanwhile, Jeb is stranded in either fourth or fifth place; in only one of the two surveys does he crack double digits.

Beyond the empirical data, there are two bigger reasons to believe Jeb’s all-in strategy won’t work.

First, the Republican electorate has changed. Roiled by years of populist activism, first by the tea party and now by Trump’s legions, the conservative base has fundamentally departed from where it was a decade ago. And while its ultimate destination is unclear, the impetus for the move was staring at us last night: George W. Bush. The tea party was a reaction to the Obama presidency and health care reform, it’s true, but it was also a mutiny against the Bush years, with all their spending boondoggles and failed wars. Even ISIS hasn’t driven GOP voters back into the arms of neoconservatives. The right is less hawkish than it was a decade ago, no matter how you approach it.

Second, South Carolina has changed. Specifically, it’s been flooded by Northerners fleeing high taxes and exorbitant costs in states like Connecticut and New York, who appreciate the quiet charm of Charleston and laissez-faire economics of Columbia. (We may have found the one migration pattern that Donald Trump actually likes!) South Carolina is still the military primary, with strong veterans groups, good-ol’-boy networks, and a preference for establishment-ordered politics. But there’s greater potential for it to be a wild card than when George W. Bush zipped up the Republican nomination there in 2000.

So can a candidate who brazenly accuses a former Republican president of lying our country into war take first in the Palmetto State? Can another candidate who blasts “Washington neocons”—Ted Cruz—take second? It’s certainly more likely than it was 16 years ago. The fact is that most conservatives have moved on from the aughts, and while South Carolinians still reserve some affection for George W. Bush, we shouldn’t confuse a little nostalgia with being stuck in the past.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the deputy editor of Rare Politics. 

This piece was originally published on Rare Politics on February 16, 2016. Read more HERE

Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.