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Commentary

Michigan and the Bush family

Jack Lessenberry

The last time Michigan voted for a Bush for President, the Berlin Wall was still up, nobody in these parts had ever heard of a twenty-something Barack Obama, few imagined the Soviet Union would ever disappear, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented.

Since then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s father and brother have been the Republican nominees for president three times, and Michigan voters each time said no.

Jeb Bush wants to turn that around this year. Yesterday, he arrived in Grand Rapids in an effort to kick-start his sputtering national campaign.

But unfortunately for him, even this trip seemed jinxed. The scary weather delayed his flight so much he missed a fundraising event, though he did arrive in time to speak to a couple hundred people in a town hall meeting.

Bush pledged to be in Michigan often before the March 8 Republican primary. He said he thought he could turn things around and win Michigan in the general election, too.

But right now, the odds seem long against his ever getting there.

From the start, his campaign has been haunted by a video of his mother Barbara, saying two years ago that she didn’t think he would run.

“There are other people that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes,” she said. Barbara Bush, who plays about the same role in the family that the dowager does on Downton Abbey, has since retracted that. She fully supports her son, and says she wants him to be president.

However, you can’t erase anything in the age of the Internet, and the real problem is that there are a lot of people who do think we’ve had enough Bushes. Jeb’s brother was terribly unpopular when he left the White House less than seven years ago.

Some feel that his legacy would doom his brother’s campaign. If elected officials and long-time party leaders still decided the nomination in smoke-filled rooms, Jeb Bush probably would be the nominee. Many still feel he is best equipped to both win and govern.

But as of now, rank-and-file voters don’t feel that way. Despite all his name recognition and money, Bush has been stuck at about eight percent in the polls. Nobody foresaw the rise of Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

And there’s no indication that if their popularity fades, their voters would turn to Bush. These days, establishment Michigan Republicans I know are pinning their hopes on his fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio. In politics, timing is everything, and they think the calendar isn’t with Jeb, though many feel he would have been a better President than his brother.

Ironically, though few remember this now, Michigan is a big part of the reason we’ve had any Bushes in the White House. Thirty-five years ago, then-Governor Bill Milliken campaigned hard for George Bush the first when he was running for President.

Bush didn’t have a chance to beat Ronald Reagan that year. But he did score a huge win in Michigan’s presidential primary, and that helped win him the vice-presidential nomination. The rest, as they say, is history. Within a few months, voters will tell his younger son whether there are not only second, but third acts in presidential lives.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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