In January 2008, at a John McCain rally in Columbia, S.C., I asked a number of local politicos to look back to the brutal 2000 Republican primary in their state, the one between McCain and George W. Bush. They had all supported Bush back then, and I asked whether, given the inconclusive wars, runaway federal spending and economic catastrophe of the next eight years, they felt they made the right choice.
The answer was yes. They explained that they had strongly supported Ronald Reagan, and then they supported George H.W. Bush because they had supported Reagan, and then supported George W. Bush because they had supported George H.W. Bush. It was just a natural progression.
Now, after decisive presidential defeats in 2008 and 2012, there is another Bush to consider as party insiders buzz about the possibility of a Jeb Bush candidacy. But the question, in South Carolina and elsewhere, is whether the enormous legacy advantage that George W. Bush enjoyed will still be there.
"There was a sense of loyalty that started with Reagan and moved to H.W. and then to W," said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman and a continuing influential figure in the state. "Whether that translates to Jeb or not I just don't know."
Wynn, a supporter of Bush I and II, said he believes Jeb's fortunes will depend on whether there is a "fresh face that is so compelling that it overcomes the legacy effect." Wynn mentioned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio but said the newcomer could be one of several others as well.
The bottom line is that a Jeb Bush candidacy could turn the Republican presidential race into a forward vs. backward contest, not because Bush's policies would be backward (they might be just the opposite) but because his family tree, both personal and political, reaches far into the GOP past and will force Republicans to decide whether it's time to move on or whether it's possible to go to the well one more time.
"It's too far removed," said state Sen. John Courson, who recalls the Reagan years as the most exciting of his political life. "It was eons ago. [Jeb's] father was Reagan's vice president, his brother was president, but that is starting to wane, too. ... In my personal opinion, with all due respect to Gov. Bush, I would like to look forward to a Rubio or an Ayotte, or someone of that nature."
Of course, in the wake of a devastating defeat, people often say they want a fresh new face the next time around. And then, somehow, an old face wins the race. The Republican Party has certainly earned its reputation for nominating the guy who finished second the last time.
"That didn't work out well with John McCain and it didn't work out well with Mitt Romney," said Katon Dawson, another former South Carolina GOP chief. "Just because it's your turn doesn't mean you're the best nominee." For his part, Dawson said he would "never write off Jeb Bush" but also sees clear opportunities for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other Republican newcomers.
The assumption among many GOP insiders is that Bush would enjoy a huge head start with big-money donors and Republican establishment types. And even though the family name is badly tainted for many Americans, Bush supporters could make a pretty compelling argument on his behalf: In the three decades since 1984, the only Republicans to be elected president have been named Bush.
That might win over hesitant GOP voters whose above-all-else priority will be victory. "The attitude after his brother left office was 'No more Bushes, no more Bushes,' " said Clemson University political scientist David Woodard. "Well, I think they're open to Bushes now. They're waiting for a savior. They're looking for anybody who can win."
Of course, for any of this to happen, Jeb Bush has to actually run for president. That's not a given; insiders describe his current state of mind as "thinking about thinking about it." (By the way, they scoff at publicity given to Bush's attendance of a reunion of some of his old staff in Washington recently; it was long-planned and had nothing to do with anything presidential.) Still, any Republican contemplating a run has to consider the Bush factor.
With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats had a backward vs. forward fight in 2008. After an epic struggle, they chose forward. Another Bush run for president could set off a similarly desperate fight inside the Republican Party.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.