Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

Ross Douthat: We could do worse than the last of the Bushes

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George H.W. Bush was the first politician I ever disliked. I was 12, my parents were loyal Democrats, and every night we’d watch the news, cheer for whatever Bill Clinton was saying on the trail, and then glower at the screen when Peter Jennings went to Brit Hume, then the White House correspondent, for an update on what the incumbent president was up to.

For a kid new to politics, in a family that regarded Republicans as stuffed shirts and black hats, the fact that the elder Bush had been elected president was simply baffling. His voice, his affect, his malapropisms, his endless forehead – they reminded me of a stiff in one of the black-and-white films my parents watched, or the Token Clueless Grown-up in a kids’ adventure movie. Watching him nightly, I kept thinking: How could anyone like this guy?

One answer, I learned later, was that relatively few people really did. Not that Bush hadn’t earned his share of admirers across his distinguished career. But by the standards of modern presidents he lacked a truly passionate fan base. The conservative movement was perpetually disappointed in him; liberals gave him no credit for his moderation; the press never swooned for him; and few voters bonded with him the way they did with the beloved Reagan, the charismatic Clinton – or even, eventually, with a more populist and swaggering President George W. Bush.

So my 12-year-old self’s political instincts weren’t all wrong. The elder Bush had many gifts, but he was not a particularly appealing politician.

Neither, it turns out, is his second son. We’ve reached the last stand of the Jeb Bush campaign, the make-or-break moment, and now that New Hampshire is behind us, his $100 million juggernaut is just days or weeks away from breaking down. And in many ways, the Jeb! campaign has recapitulated his father’s struggle to play the modern presidential part.

The father had “the wimp factor,” his second son has “low energy.” The father struggled to deal with a billionaire populist; so too has the son. (Ross Perot then, Donald Trump now.) The father’s inspirational gestures (“a thousand points of light”) were less memorable than his crime-and-culture assault on Michael Dukakis; the son’s promise to run a “joyful” campaign has collapsed into a wave of negative ads. The father famously told a New Hampshire audience, “Message: I care.” The son finished a recent town-hall peroration with the instantly immortal “Please clap.”

The difference is that the father had better fortune before his ’92 defeat. The father got to run for Ronald Reagan’s third term in 1988, whereas Jeb has the anchor of his brother’s unsuccessful administration. The father faced Bob Dole and Dukakis; his son has more politically effective rivals. (There’s more than a hint of Clinton in Marco Rubio.) And the elder Bush was better served by his hatchet men, Lee Atwater and James Baker, than Jeb has been by Mike Murphy’s super PAC, whose most memorable attack ad involved Rubio’s ... boots.

So unless something dramatic changes, Bush family history will have repeated itself – the first time as a rise and fall, the second time just as a flop.

But before it does, it’s worth recalling that after he was ejected from the White House, people realized that actually George H.W. Bush had been a pretty good president.

Not a transformative one, to be sure; not an ideological hero in the mold of Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt. But precisely because the elder Bush lacked certain politicians’ gifts, he also lacked certain characteristic politicians’ weaknesses – the appetitive indiscipline of his successor, the headstrong utopianism of his son, the polarizing arrogance of our present chief executive.

Which meant that while his presidency left no major domestic policy legacy, it also bequeathed few disasters, and left the economy in good shape for its 1990s boom. His foreign policy built on Reagan’s achievements, but Bush presided successfully over an extraordinarily fraught four years (the Berlin Wall, the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Soviet Union) and left office with U.S. interests arguably stronger than at any point in modern history.

As a case for his son, this is not the stuff of 30-second ads: I share my dad’s weaknesses as a politician, so maybe I’d actually be a pretty good president. I’m Jeb Bush and I approve this message.

But the funny thing is, it might be true. Jeb has proven, over many painful months, that he lacks the gifts required to win a primary campaign. But the democratic process is hardly infallible, and a great deal of damage can be done by presidents rich in political charisma – and with it zeal, self-righteousness and certainty.

Between Ted Cruz, Rubio, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – to say nothing of Trump – there’s a lot of those qualities to go around. Which makes me fear that we could do a lot worse than John Ellis Bush. And that we probably will.

Now, before he goes – please clap.