That was the question leading up to the former Florida governor’s soft announcement this week that he was exploring a run for the presidency in 2016. The question came from Bloomberg reporters Joshua Green and Miles Weiss, who on December 11 wrote about Bush’s new and intricately entangled financial dealings with private equity funds that, among other things, help foreign and domestic investors avoid paying U.S. taxes.
Green and Weiss argue that with these ventures, revealed by November 27 filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jeb Bush shares “a number of liabilities with the last nominee, Mitt Romney, whose career in private equity proved so politically damaging that it sunk his candidacy.”
If Bush does indeed share such liabilities, he was sharing them long before this year.
In July, Lou Dubose reported on Bush’s role as spokesman for a Miami firm that bilked millions from investors, and whose founder, Claudio Osorio is now serving time in federal prison. Osorio was a known fraud before Bush came on board, and Bush stayed on board even as Osorio was under investigation. As Dubose wrote in The Washington Spectator, the evidence suggests at least “an ethical blind spot that led Bush to ignore the fact that the book value and returns reported by InnoVida executives were impossible under any reasonable set of financial assumptions. … Bush endorsed a company that defrauded its shareholders and the government while failing to deliver its product to market.”
But there’s reason to believe Bush does not have a Romney problem. Not in the way we currently think. Business is a natural part of the Bush family experience. With them, business and politics go hand in hand to such a degree that there’s no distinction between them. As Jeb noted in his announcement, he had a great time over the Thanksgiving weekend, watched a lot of football with the people he loves, and they all talked about the future of the country.
I suspect voters, especially Republican voters, don’t mind Jeb Bush’s business history, even if they are fodder for attack ads. That history is easily overshadowed by his coming from a long line of venerated public servants that goes all the way back to Prescott Bush of Connecticut (who was a wealthy and well-connected banker and a U.S. senator). In contrast, Republican Mitt Romney was a one-term governor of the most liberal state in America who made millions almost exclusively through a private-equity firm that cannibalized other firms. Sure, former Republican Governor George Romney of Michigan was Willard Mitt Romney’s dad, but old George was a civil-rights warrior and a liberal beloved by the likes of Nelson Rockefeller. In other words, long before Mitt Romney ran for president, he was persona non grata among movement conservatives.
Which I think is the proper context in which to compare Jeb Bush to Mitt Romney: not as a context of labyrinthine financial deal-making, but as two variants to the competing factions that make claims to conservatism, especially the ascendent libertarian faction from which anti-abortion conservatives and neoconservatives have kept a distance. As Sean Trende reminded us some time ago, the Republican base–and he means specifically those who aligned themselves under the banner of the Tea Party–is furious with the GOP establishment especially over what it sees as betrayals during the George W. Bush years in which the biggest Republican majority since the 1920s was squandered on attempts at immigration reform, bank bailouts and the biggest single act of nation-building (Iraq) since the launch of the Marshall Plan. He writes:
“The icing on the cake for conservatives is that these moves were justified through an argument that they were necessary to continue to win elections and take issues off the table for Democrats. Instead, Bush’s presidency was followed in 2008 by the most liberal Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by sizable Democratic House and Senate majorities.”
So the Bush brand is far from robust. And this just the start.