Exit polls suggest a Kerry trend, though it’s way too early for the data to carry much weight. But let’s be irresponsible. Let us suppose that George W. Bush loses this election and gets evicted from the White House. (Hallelujah!) Will we have seen the last of Dubya?
I wish I could say yes, but my gut tells me that if Bush loses today (or tomorrow, or whenever the ballots are finally counted and litigated), he’ll run again in 2008.
Is this liberal paranoia—a counterpart to the conservative fixation on a Hillary Clinton run for president? I certainly hope so. But bear with me a moment. The final tally in this election will likely be very close. If Bush loses by a hair’s breadth, Republicans are unlikely to conclude that he’s damaged goods. Rule of thumb: When Democrats lose, they blame the candidate. When Republicans lose, they blame the opposition. I foresee the GOP feeling victimized, either by uncertainties (real or imagined) in the final vote tally, or by the abrupt interruption of the neocon Camelot (“Don’t let it be forgot/ That once there was a spot/ Where NATO allies got the bird …”). For Republicans, remember, Bush’s presidency began in a monarchical spirit—restoration of the House of Bush—and though Dubya’s conduct in office proved much more irresponsible than his father’s, the urge to continue the bloodline could well persist. In 2008, George W. Bush will be a mere 62—seven years younger than Ronald Reagan when he won the Republican nomination in 1980.
Republican longing for a monarchical succession fuels speculation that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Dubya’s younger and smarter brother, would run in 2008. But Jeb says he isn’t going to do it. Assuming he’s sincere, there may be a very good reason to hold back: to keep dad from making Sophie’s Choice. This may sound like the stuff of soap opera, but the support of George H.W. Bush was probably the deciding factor in securing George W. the nomination in 2000; working the phones quietly, Bush père persuaded a great many of the party’s biggest fund raisers to withhold cash from Dubya’s primary competitors. (An answer, at last, to the question, Why did the GOP rally so quickly around this numbnuts? My source is The Bushes: Portrait of A Dynasty, by Peter and Rochelle Schwizer.) That assumes, of course, that Bush père will still be alive four years from now—he’s 80—but he appears to be in excellent physical health, and longevity is a Connecticut Yankee trait. (Katharine Hepburn lived to 96, and Bush’s own mother died at 91.)
The prospect of a Dubya run in 2008 has been considered by almost no one, but Ken Herman of the Austin American Statesman wrote about it last month. Herman spoke with a Bush aide who said he’d given thought to that scenario but declined to be quoted on the record for fear of retribution. (In the Bush White House, discussing the possibility that the president will lose this election is even more verboten than it was to discuss the postwar occupation of Iraq prior to the invasion.) One of the political scientists quoted in Herman’s piece wondered aloud why anyone would want to run for president after being defeated as an incumbent. In Bush’s case, though, that’s easy to answer: Because Bush believes God wants him to be president. Should Bush lose today, he may conclude that there is no God, but I think it’s much likelier that he’ll conclude that the Man Upstairs is testing him. To avoid a spiritual test by not seeking the nomination in 2008 might therefore strike Dubya as sacrilege.
I’m not saying Bush would necessarily get the nomination; I’m just saying his candidacy would be plausible enough for him to mount a credible primary campaign. One logical obstacle to nomination might be the perception that Bush was not a very good president the first time around, even when measured against a conservative yardstick. That’s the sort of thing that would kill it for a Democrat. But Republicans are much more disciplined, and have proved time and again that they can rally around the most god-awful candidates. A more serious obstacle is the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. That’s the post-FDR amendment limiting presidents to two elective terms in office. In practice, that would mean that if the GOP nominated Bush, it would do so knowing that he could serve only one term. Grover Cleveland, the only president in United States history to serve two nonconsecutive terms as president, did so long before the 22nd Amendment was passed. He was free to run a third time, and, indeed, sought the nomination to do so, only to be rejected in favor of William Jennings Bryan (who lost to William McKinley).
But I don’t think the 22nd Amendment is an insurmountable obstacle. Dubya couldn’t run in 2012, but Jeb could, and that might be good enough for the GOP. Or perhaps the mantle would be passed to the next generation of Bushes. What would matter would be maintaining the dynasty, not the presidency of one individual. Think how long it took the Kennedy family to lose its dynastic aura.