At the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week, the Bush family will be everywhere and nowhere. For more than a generation, no family has done more to define Republican politics than the Bush clan. Since 1980, they've clocked a combined 20 years in the presidency and vice presidency, and 14 years in big-state governorships. They've launched three major wars and appointed four justices to the Supreme Court. But when the GOP coalition gathers in Tampa, only one member of the family will play a major role: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He had been set to speak today, but the cancellation of the day's convention proceedings because of Tropical Storm Isaac's impending arrival gives him a Thursday slot that won't be in prime time. The two Bushes who actually won the White House won't be attending at all. For George H.W. Bush, now 88, that's a result of his own fading physical strength. For his son George W. Bush, it's a reflection of his enduring political unpopularity.
Since 2008, Republicans have taken extraordinary pains to distance themselves from the legacy of Bush 43, whom many Americans identify closely with a global financial meltdown and the war in Iraq. Mitt Romney has been no exception: While he has vowed to continue some signature Bush 43 accomplishments, such as across-the-board tax cuts, Romney's campaign-trail allusions to the last Republican president have been strikingly rare.
Yet the Bushes and their political accomplishments have shadowed the 2012 race. National Republicans mounted a concerted effort last year to urge Jeb Bush into the campaign. The Floridian has spoken out repeatedly during the election to nudge the national conversation on issues such as immigration and debt reduction. In a Sunday appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Bush said demographic changes mean the GOP should shift the "tone" of its message over the long term. "I'm concerned over the long haul, for sure," he said.
Romney touted an endorsement from Bush 41 during the Republican primaries, and Bush 43 issued a statement of support on the day Romney announced Paul Ryan as his vice president.
And from the looks of it, the Bush family isn't finished with electoral politics. Jeb Bush's two sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Bush Jr., have set up their own political action committees. George P. Bush, who heads Maverick PAC and holds a leadership post in the Texas Republican Party, is scheduled to host a Wednesday night event at the Tampa convention for his group focused on bringing young professionals into the GOP.
The youngest George Bush said in an interview that his uncle's absence from the convention shouldn't be interpreted as an end to the Bush family's involvement in American politics.
"I think part of his analysis was to allow more breathing room for the current ticket to outline their vision. His chips are all in behind Gov. Romney and when called upon, he'll be there to serve," he explained. "I think the role he's going to seek to play is more on the public policy, think-tank side of the conservative movement."
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Jeb Bush said his own focus was on education policy and the political organizations run by his two sons. He has also hit the campaign trail for Romney and other GOP candidates.
"I've got a lot of interesting events, education-related for some. I'm helping my son (Jeb Jr.) with his SunPAC deal. I'm helping my other son with MavPAC, so I have a pretty full agenda," the former governor said. "They're already involved in politics and they may run for office. I don't push them to do it, for sure, but if they do it, I'm all in."
While the newest generation of Bushes might end up on the ballot themselves one day, George P. Bush pointed to Paul Ryan's fiscal conservatism as a model for the party right now: "I think a lot of people in our generation buy into the reality that he speaks to, that we face a very difficult fiscal situation. … He's willing to be straight with us."
Ironically, the entitlements debate is one of the clearest examples of how the Bush dynasty has influenced the 2012 campaign. For Republicans who fear voter backlash over Romney and Ryan's Medicare proposals, George W. Bush's failed — and politically costly — 2005 push for Social Security reform is a chilling memory.
Victor Ashe, a former ambassador to Poland and a Yale classmate of George W. Bush, pointed to the Social Security debate as a particularly resonant moment.
"He made the effort and obviously it didn't succeed. He reached partisan gridlock and perhaps the country wasn't as ready for it then as it is now," said Ashe, who said he believes the most recent President Bush is "glad to be moving on to the next phase of his life."
Ashe, a former mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., suggested that the Bushes' most tangible and immediate legacy is a generation's worth of Republican strategists and party leaders who are active at every level of the 2012 campaign.
"I think the family certainly has a major legacy in the party and it manifests itself when you look at all the people who are running for office or holding office who are alumni of 12 years of Bush presidencies," he said. "I think the influence is alive and well and will continue for some time, just as on the Democratic side you look at the Clinton influence."
The Bush alumni on the front lines of the 2012 race are legion. Romney's vice presidential short list included at least one official, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who held senior jobs in the Bush 43 administration. Romney's campaign is stocked with veterans of the Bush presidential bids, including Romney counsel Ben Ginsberg, who was national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaigns; media consultant Stuart Stevens, who cut ads for Bush; Kevin Madden, a former Bush and Justice Department spokesman who holds a senior communications post on Romney's team; and Dan Senor, a top Romney adviser who was spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
It's not just a Romney campaign phenomenon, either. The powerful Republican outside-spending group American Crossroads was set up by a team of Bush allies, including former senior White House aide Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chairmen Mike Duncan and Ed Gillespie. (Gillespie has since parted ways with Crossroads to join the Romney campaign.)
In foreign policy, especially, the most recent Bush administration continues to define the personalities and ideas of the Republican Party. Romney doesn't hug Bush's foreign policy record too tightly on the campaign trail, but he talks about national security in similar terms and condemns President Barack Obama as a comparatively weak-kneed commander in chief.
When Romney allies wanted to float unconventional, eye-catching picks for the vice presidency, the Drudge Report threw out two names that George W. Bush made famous: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and CIA director David Petraeus, who became a national figure as Bush's commander in Iraq. Rice will address the convention Wednesday night.
John Bolton, a Romney adviser who served as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, said there would be "philosophical continuity" between George W. Bush and a Romney administration.
"Romney, like Bush 43, is in the Reagan, peace-through-strength camp, and Obama clearly is not," Bolton said. "It's not operational continuity or even policy continuity. It's more philosophical continuity that I see. I don't see it as a two-car convoy — I see it going back to Reagan and the broad thrust of Republican foreign policy."
Others in the party see a grander continuity across the Bush administrations, stretching into the present day and — perhaps — into the future.
For all the political setbacks the Bush family has faced, from George H.W. Bush's defeat in 1992 to his son's diminished stature at the end of his term, the family also has been one of the most resilient forces in national politics. What started as a patrician, New England-based political family morphed into an oil-drilling Texas clan as the power center of the GOP moved to the Southeast. As Florida emerged as one of the most important general-election battlegrounds, Jeb Bush became its governor and now remains the patron saint of Sunshine State conservatism.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who was Bush's first secretary of Homeland Security, argued that the desire in some quarters for a President Jeb Bush wasn't merely a matter of dynastic politics. It was also, Ridge said, that Jeb Bush lined up with the hard-charging, conservative, reformist governors who lead the GOP today: "One of the reasons people thought about Jeb so highly this year was not just because of his last name but because of his record as governor."
Some Republicans haven't given up hope that Jeb may yet run for president himself, or at the very least that his sons will carry the family's banner forward.
"In a larger sense, the legacy of the Bush family — 41 through 43, and Jeb, and what is already evident from George P. — is civic virtue and purposeful public service," said Republican presidential strategist Mary Matalin, a longtime Bush family ally. "Their tenures in the public arena will be marked by and remembered for practical success born of time-honored traditions and philosophies, as well as personal integrity, humility and self-sacrifice in a field perceived to be a bottomless pit of self-serving and self-regarding power grabbers."
Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. POLITICO and the Times are partnering to cover the 2012 election cycle.