There’s not much doubt that Jeb Bush is the 2016 favorite of the grownups in the Republican Party, the powerful establishment insiders and financiers who would rather win elections than prove an ideological point.
When the GOP rich and powerful survey the crowded field of possible presidential candidates, they see either damaged politicians — such as Chris Christie of the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal — or dangerous ones — such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose quasi-libertarian ideas are anathema to the establishment. Except, of course, for the former governor of Florida, who many Republicans believe is the most electable of all those now mentioned.
Karl Rove, the GOP operative known colloquially as “Bush’s brain,” as in brother George W. Bush, touts Jeb as the “deepest thinker on our side.” That may not be saying much these days, given the penchant among many Republicans to deny science, from evolution to climate change, but Bush has a reputation as a “policy wonk” and an “ideas junkie.”
Bush also appears to be the choice of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s major donors, many of whom have been imploring him to run. “He’s the most desired candidate out there,” said one prominent Republican fundraiser, Brian Ballard, who sat on the national finance committees for Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. “Everybody that I know is excited about it.”
Of course, Ballard and his fellow GOP insiders know only other insiders, politicians and financiers who may raise a lot of money but who don’t control the folks who vote in Republican primaries. And that raises the obvious questions: Could Jeb Bush get through the Republican primary process? Could he appeal to the ultra-right voters who predominate in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina?
By 2016 Bush will have been out of office for nearly a decade. Already he’s shown a certain rustiness and an inability to navigate the modern GOP fault lines on issues like immigration. He recently caused a ruckus when he described illegal immigration as “not a felony” but an “act of love” deriving from a “commitment to… family.” That’s heresy to Republican activists who think any proposal for immigration reform is tantamount to amnesty.
Immigration is just one indicator of how out-of-step Bush is with the modern Republican Party. As Brendan Nyhan noted in The New York Times, Bush’s “deeper problem is that the messaging and positions that worked for him in Florida — a swing state with a large Hispanic population — are not necessarily a good fit with the national G.O.P. primary electorate, which is far whiter and more conservative.” Bush’s enthusiasm for improving government’s effectiveness in education, immigration, and criminal justice does not resonate with tea partiers and libertarians who are openly hostile to government.
Bush last ran for office in 2002, long before Barack Obama was elected president and long before the tea party revolt against Obama and his policies. “It’d be a little odd to nominate someone who was last in office in 2006, who hasn’t been politically involved at all, in any significant way, in the Obama years,” says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.
Columba Bush, his Mexican-born wife, always has been a reluctant political warrior, and Bush confidants say he would not run “over her objections.” Spouses increasingly have played major rules in presidential elections, and Jeb Bush would have to consider how to craft a comfortable role for his wife.
Then there is the Bush fatigue factor. A recent poll shows that nearly half of all respondents say they “definitely would not” vote for him for president, perhaps a legacy of his brother George’s two wars and the economic meltdown that occurred on his watch.
There is also reason to question the conventional wisdom which says Bush is the most electable Republican. A poll conducted late last month shows Bush trailing Hillary Clinton by twelve points in a hypothetical matchup. Of course, no other Republicans do better.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Bush even getting that far.
Bush three? Not likely.