Jeb Bush’s much-discussed presidential candidacy came closer to a reality yesterday as the former Florida governor and dynastic scion announced he was considering it and setting up a leadership PAC. But a funny thing has happened since the last presidential cycle, when National Review editor Rich Lowry tried to loft a Draft Jeb balloon: the conventional wisdom that Jeb was right in the sweet spot of a party that loved his family and must therefore love its most conservative member has been turned upside down.
Jeb is now widely expected to face an uphill struggle due to conservative activist dismay at his suddenly heretical positions on immigration and education, and general voter hostility to (or fatigue with) his family and its legacy. And these two problems painfully converge in the patent belief of many within the GOP “base” that the entire Bush clan is a treacherous band of crypto-liberals devoted to big government and excessive “compassion” for the undeserving poor.
That’s a strange turn of events for the guy who could have become the “movement conservative” candidate in the 2000 presidential field without the painstaking makeover his older brother undertook after Jeb lost the Florida governor’s race in 1994 and took himself temporarily out of the dynastic rotation. But he’s picked a bad time to self-consciously defy those in his party who are convinced that more, not less, ideological rigidity is in order, as he did in telling a room full of CEOs that winning the 2016 election would require risking a primary defeat. His mispositioning is so obvious that the old positive conventional wisdom about Jeb is now best articulated in a contrarian take from progressive Matt Yglesias, who reminds us that the last two Republican presidential nominees were supposedly too “moderate” as well, and that Bush is very popular with the “Establishment” donor class, which is still capable of imposing its will on “the base.”
Bush does have some significant assets to go along with his dynastic name recognition. Whatever his problems elsewhere, he’s still quite popular in Florida, which is a large and important state in both the nominating and general election contests (“the name” gives him a bit of a second home in Texas, as well). For various reasons—among them probably admiration of his courage in championing the Big Business-backed Common Core initiative even as others in his party turn their coats and backs on it—Bush really is the darling of big GOP donors, probably even more than Mitt Romney was in 2012, which is saying a lot. And if the GOP has not completely alienated Latinos by November 2016, it would certainly help to have a nominee who speaks Spanish fluently, is married to a Latina, and is also the father of “the little brown ones,” as his own father once incautiously referred to them in public. As a bonus, he would also be the first Catholic to be nominated for president by the GOP (though there are five other proto-candidates that can make that claim).
But Bush’s central problem is that in outside donor circles, he simply isn’t beloved in the way a fresher and more viscerally ideological candidate could be, and thus he needs a very strong “electability” argument to pull conservatives, however reluctantly, into his camp. And that’s the rub: despite his name ID, his resume, and his “centrist” positions on at least some subjects, this on-paper “winner” is not very popular with the general electorate. In two solid years of being pitted against Hillary Clinton in polls, Bush has not led a single one, and trails her in the latest RealClearPolitics average by over 9%. That’s a poorer margin than for Ryan (6%), Christie (7%), and Huckabee (8%), and about the same as for Paul. Ted Cruz is the only regularly polled putative GOP candidate running significantly worse than Bush against HRC (an RCP average gap of 13%), and that’s largely because he’s far less well-known.
Not having held a public office since 2006, it’s unclear what Bush can do to make himself significantly more popular with the general public in hopes of becoming seductively attractive to Republican caucus and primary voters who have a lot of other options. His signature issue used to be education, but his once-novel experiments with private school vouchers and teacher tenure “reform” are now old-hat and universally supported by Republicans. Moreover, education is a hot-button issue mostly to people angry about reform initiatives like Common Core. And there should be red flashing signs in Jeb’s camp about his business record, ranging from his involvement with Lehman Brothers and Barclays to his more recent dealings with Chinese investors. If Republicans want another Mitt Romney, the original is still available.
Can Jeb Bush buy his way to the standing he needs? His support from donors will obviously help if he runs, but as Rick Perry showed in 2012, the money can go pretty fast if it’s not propped up by positive events. And at the moment, the main way Bush can attract attention is by continuing to scold his once-fellow-conservatives for insufficient realism. Perhaps Bush will be able to elbow Christie and Rubio and even Romney out of the way and slip-slide through a demolition derby of conservatives the way John McCain did in 2008. But he could be on a trajectory to become this cycle’s Jon Huntsman, with a lot more money to run through. And just maybe he’s jollying his father and brother and various family retainers, and will not run when push comes to shove, leaving the dynasty in the hands of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, his son, who has had the good political sense to oppose Common Core.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.