The GOP can’t seem to let go of its Jeb Bush fantasy.
The former Florida governor has made perfectly clear that he has no plans to belatedly jump into the presidential race, despite the clamor from those who are still underwhelmed by Mitt Romney’s candidacy. But let’s set aside his reluctance and imagine what would happen if he did.
First, the elephant in the room: A third member of the Bush family serving in the White House within 20 years? Really? Once the focus moved from virtual Jeb to flesh-and-blood Jeb, the media would go wild speculating whether the country has had enough of the Bush clan.
Jeb’s last name is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse. It’s been just over three years since George W. Bush walked out of the White House at a low ebb of popularity. Fairly or unfairly, his eight-year term is associated with the Iraq quagmire, Katrina, big spending, big deficits, an education law no one seems to like, and a Wall Street collapse that led to the much-reviled TARP bailout. The other Republican candidates almost never mention his name, as if he’d been airbrushed from party history.
Jeb Bush has considerable gifts—he was, in fact, widely considered the better politician in the family—and racked up his share of accomplishments in Florida. Which, of course, is a crucial swing state. If his name was Jeb Jones, he would indeed be a formidable contender—and probably would have run in 2012 rather than staying on the sidelines.
But beyond being one of Poppy’s boys, the actual Jeb Bush would have another problem as a candidate. The party has marched inexorably to the right in a way that leaves him decidedly out of step. Don’t take my word for it; here’s what Bush told a gathering in Dallas, as reported by Fox News:
“I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.”
When a Republican says he “used to be a conservative,” he means he doesn’t much like the party’s rightward lurch. Are angry primary voters who have given Rick Santorum a series of victories (and a near-miss in Mitt Romney’s home state of Michigan) going to flock to a candidate who talks like that?
Then there is Bush’s somewhat moderate approach to immigration. Jeb is fluent in Spanish and married to a Mexican-born woman; that would seem an ideal profile for a party that badly needs to attract Hispanics. But Jeb opposed Arizona’s harsh law cracking down on those here illegally and similar efforts in other states.
As he said in January, “Hispanic voters hear these debates and see the ramifications of the Alabama law and other things like that and get turned off. It’s not a good thing—I know this will sound a little crazy—but I happen to believe that if swing voters decide elections and swing voters in swing states are the most important voters in the presidential race, and if you send a signal that turns them off, that’s a bad thing.”
Is a 2012 Republican candidate even allowed to say that anymore? Remember how Newt Gingrich caused an uproar by saying he wouldn’t deport illegal immigrants who had been part of their community for 25 years?
As governor, Jeb opposed oil drilling off Florida’s pristine coastlines, and even though he’s modified that stance, the record puts him at odds with the “drill, baby, drill” party.
And what about Jeb’s role in delivering Florida for his bro during that fiercely contested recount? The Democrats, and the press, will waste no time resurrecting that contentious subject.
Still, the white-knight syndrome is deeply embedded in the Republican psyche. Andy Card, who was chief of staff in his brother’s White House, calls Jeb the “perfect” candidate. There’s even a Facebook page, “Jeb Bush 2012—Keep Hope Alive.” (Was stealing a Jesse Jackson slogan the best they could do?)
But the thing about white knights is that they lose their armor the moment they charge into battle. The same would happen with Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels, two other GOP “grownups” often mentioned as potential saviors, despite the inconvenient fact that they both weighed running and took a pass.
And don’t forget the practical obstacles. Filing deadlines have passed for all but a handful of large states, such as California and New Jersey. And for all the empty talk about a brokered convention, a sizable number of delegates elected on behalf of Romney and Santorum would have to jump ship.
Jeb could have shut down the chatter by endorsing Romney in the Florida primary, but he kept his powder dry. That hardly amounts to a secret plan to run himself.
Bush probably calculated that memories of his brother’s administration will have faded enough to make 2016 a better year for him. Eight years was, after all, the length of time it took for Bill Clinton to make voters a tad nostalgic for George H.W. Bush, opening the door for his son to recapture the White House for the family. Jeb will be 62 when the next New Hampshire primary rolls around. He’s got time.
Every time the 2012 question comes up, Bush says he has no intention of running. It’s time for the fantasists to take him at his word.