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Bush in the Wilderness

W.’s little brother wrestles with a complicated legacy—and positions himself for the next chance.

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Jeb Bush walks into the room wearing a shimmery sharkskin suit, taller than you expect and trimmer, grabbing hands and beaming like a man who’s running for something.

“Good to go,” he says, clapping impatiently. “It’s game time.”

Backstage at a theater in Tampa during the GOP convention, the former governor of Florida has shown up to discuss education policy after a screening of the new Maggie Gyllenhaal movie, Won’t Back Down, a drama about a single mother who does a hostile takeover of her failing public school and turns it around—a Jeb Bush fantasy come to life. But he’s got plenty on his mind besides education. Sitting down across from me, he assumes his role as party Cassandra, warning of the day when the Republicans’ failure to tap an exploding Hispanic population will cripple its chances at reclaiming power—starting in Texas, the family seat of the House of Bush.

“It’s a math question,” he tells me. “Four years from now, Texas is going to be a so-called blue state. Imagine Texas as a blue state, how hard it would be to carry the presidency or gain control of the Senate.”

Imagine. Four years from now.

Once again, it is impossible to ignore Jeb Bush describing a problem he’s uniquely suited to solve for his party: a popular two-time governor of a Hispanic-heavy state, with a record of improving education for minorities, fluent in Spanish, married to a Latina, and father to two Hispanic sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Jr. By Jeb Bush’s own calculus, Jeb Bush would make a great presidential candidate.

But then there’s all that familiar DNA above the collar line: the identical head of hair as his brother George W., the 43rd president; the same aquiline nose, inherited from his mother, Barbara, whose downturned mouth and pronounced jowls Jeb also shares and which make his face a softer, squarer version of W.’s. From the 41st president, the father, the same close-set eyes; the Mount Rushmore–ready forehead; and the mild, patrician air of confidence, handed down to Jeb from Senator Prescott Bush of Greenwich, Connecticut, over 59 years ago.

For all his lightness of being, Jeb Bush carries a heavy burden. After eight years under the presidency of his older brother, the nation was more than ready to see the Bushes exit stage right, maybe forever. A majority of Americans still blame W. for the state of the economy, and pretending Bush disappeared from the face of the Earth has been critical to an attempted Republican Party makeover. Among Republicans in his home state, purified in the fires of the tea-party movement, Bush is persona non grata. “Imagine a world where George Bush is too liberal,” says Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune. “That’s Texas 2012.”

Imagine.

But W.’s conspicuous absence—and his brother’s full schedule of TV interviews and panel discussions—signaled a careful reinvention, the first stage of a dynastic comeback. Jeb Bush’s shadow campaign began in June on the occasion of a hagiographic HBO documentary about the patriarch, titled 41, when Jeb emerged from a long silence and began publicly lamenting the state of the party by offering his father as the emblem of a once-functional politics gone extreme. It culminated with Jeb Bush—the wonkier and more introverted Bush—on the main stage of the GOP convention, before Mitt Romney’s speech, telling everyone to lay off his brother.

For many in his party and for most of this year, Jeb Bush was the ghost of what might have been. When Romney was spiraling downward, the party was in such dire straits, the thinking went, that the Bush political brand, as battered as it was, looked respectable again. “I believe the Bushes are true north,” says Mark McKinnon, the former aide to the 43rd president, “and we’ve got to get that back.”

For a party with clear fissures, Jeb Bush is an insurance policy against a Romney loss to Barack Obama. Many Republicans believe losing in November would create an epic struggle between the hard right of the party and the moderates who believe that to win, the GOP has to make a credible effort to court Hispanics. Jeb is the obvious leader of the moderate wing. The people in Jeb’s orbit have been supporting Romney, but with significant reservations because of the extreme positions Romney had to take to secure the nomination. One told me that nobody who decides to build an indoor elevator for their car can get elected in America. Even after the first debate, these people remain convinced a Romney loss is considerably more likely than not. “I don’t see how the math works for him right now,” says a close associate of Jeb’s.


*See Jeb Bush's response to New York.


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