The leading establishment candidates for the Republican presidential nomination—Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—are eager to break from the GOP of the past. Rubio bills himself as a candidate of the future who applies “free enterprise and limited government” to the “unique challenges of the 21st century.” Bush is eager to tell you he’s his “own man,” with his own ideas about the country’s future.
Rubio is young and Bush is distinct from his family, but those are truisms; individuals are, well, individuals. In terms of politics, however, neither Bush nor Rubio is unique. In fact, they come from a specific GOP tradition—they are both George W. Bush Republicans. What this means is straightforward: They primarily represent the affluent donor base of the GOP, but bundle those interests—broad tax cuts and privatization in particular—with a few policies that benefit more modest families.
You see this with their economic plans. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush bridged the divide between the Republican donor class and ordinary voters with a massive upper-income tax cut, sold as middle-class tax relief. The Bush plan also had a large child tax credit and gave a break to married couples. It was, his campaign argued, a tax plan for everyone. “High-income people would pay a bigger proportion of the tax bill after the Bush tax cuts than before them,” said his head economic advisor. This was only true in the axiomatic sense that wealthy people pay more taxes than poorer ones. In terms of value, however, the vast bulk of the worth of Bush’s tax cuts would eventually go to the highest earners.
This is the Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush tax approach, full stop. On the more populist side, Rubio would create a new child tax credit, Bush would “nearly double” the standard deduction, and both would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Both would reduce deductions and other tax subsidies for high-income families, and both would reduce rates for low- and middle-income Americans. But most of the Bush and Rubio tax cuts would go to the wealthiest Americans, from the huge rate cuts for high-income earners and an end to the estate tax, to slashing corporate tax rates and—in the Rubio plan—ending taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest.
You also see George W. Bush’s influence on immigration, a key priority for business conservatives. Going against a part of his base, the older Bush brother made a failed push for comprehensive immigration reform in his second term in office. Before that, he used a friendly message, sustained outreach, and visible diversity in his administration to build ground with Latino voters. Contrary to exit polls, Bush probably didn’t win 44 percent of Latino voters in the 2004 election. But he certainly broke the 30 percent mark in 2000 and 2004, outperforming every Republican in recent memory. Indeed, Bush—who also made modest inroads with black and Asian American voters—is the only Republican since his dad did it in 1988 to capture 50 percent or more of the national vote.
Both Rubio and Jeb Bush have learned the lesson. Grassroots backlash to previous legislation means neither candidate supports comprehensive immigration reform. And Rubio, in particular, has been vague about his immigration plans, given his role in trying to pass the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill, which was maligned by conservatives as “amnesty.” But they’ve balanced this with compassionate rhetoric and cultural affinity. Both Rubio and Bush speak fluent Spanish, deal directly with Spanish-language media, and defend immigrants in the face of attacks from restrictionist candidates like Donald Trump. Compared to Hillary Clinton, neither Bush nor Rubio is especially liked among Hispanic voters. But compared to other Republicans, they’re incredibly popular: Bush has a net 11 point favorable score, while Rubio has a net 5 point score. (Clinton has a net 40 point score.)
There are other areas where George W. Bush looms large in the campaigns of Jeb and Rubio. Both embrace the Bush legacy in foreign policy. Jeb wants to return to his brother’s second-term strategy for Iraq and the Middle East, ignoring actual facts around the “surge” and the rise of ISIS. Rubio, meanwhile, has embraced the bellicose neoconservatism of George W. Bush’s first term, announcing with his campaign launch that “nothing matters if we aren’t safe.” Both men reject international deal-making and oppose Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, adopting W’s aggressive (and ineffective) stance toward the Iranian regime.
There’s an obvious problem with George W’s influence on Jeb and Rubio: He’s unpopular. President Bush left office maligned for two failed wars and a massive recession. His disasters gave Democrats control of Congress, and helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency. Arguably, Bush—and the Democratic waves that marked his final years in office—is the reason we have the Affordable Care Act, the most consequential piece of liberal social legislation since the Great Society.
But the GOP’s most viable establishment candidates have no choice but to adopt the legacy of George W. Bush. He is the most successful Republican politician since his father and he built a conservative model for winning national elections in a diverse electorate. And he’s still popular with GOP voters; it’s why he might come to campaign for his brother in South Carolina and other vital states in the Republican contest.
But President Bush doesn’t have to wade into campaigning to play a part in the primary. If either Jeb or Rubio wins the nomination, he’ll be there, a silent reference point for any Republican administration in 2017.