As we know, the search for an “establishment” candidate has been on in the GOP for a while now, a savior who can rescue the party from Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. That man, of course, is Jeb Bush. Last week on Hardball, Kathleen Parker said he is definitely running. She’s a conservative columnist but not a wacko, has establishment GOP credentials and Florida ties to boot. And she spoke with the air of someone who had had this nugget leaked to her specifically so that she would go out on national TV and blurt it out.
So take the idea of a Bush candidacy seriously. He’ll get many of the biggest donors and most plugged-in operatives, and he’ll immediately be spoken of by the media as a, if not the, GOP front-runner.
So far, so normal. But here’s where things get interesting. Historically, “establishment” in this context also basically means “most formidable” and “most electable.” Look at the track record. Mitt Romney was the establishment candidate in 2012, John McCain in 2008, Jeb’s brother in 2000. Two of these three never became president, but there’s no doubt that all three were the best the GOP had to offer in their given years. Who would have run better than McCain in 2008? Maybe, possibly Romney himself. But not Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul. And 2012’s lineup besides Romney was comic relief. Any one of them couldn’t have topped 200 electoral votes. And Dubya, of course, won. (Well, “won,” but that’s a different column.)
It’s an iron law of presidential politics: The establishment candidate is, almost by definition, the most formidable candidate. Well, I guess iron ain’t what it used to be, because here’s the funny thing: Jeb Bush is not any stronger against Hillary Clinton than any of the rest of them. Establishment no longer means most formidable.
Last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was only the most recent survey to affirm it—Jeb Bush just isn’t very popular, and as for his presidential prospects, a lot of Americans seem to agree with his mother. The numbers are just hideous for him. He’s viewed more negatively than positively by 31 to 21 percent (just 21 percent positive!); he’s minus-7 on that question among independents. Some other polls in recent months have shown Jeb Bush to be seen less favorably than he was a couple of years ago—that is, as presidential chatter has increased, he’s dropped.
In general, he appears to fare no better against Clinton than any of the other Republicans, and in some polls worse. Look at some of the numbers amassed at the Real Clear Politics site. In a recent Colorado poll, Bush did worse against Clinton than Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Chris Christie. (Paul even led Clinton by five points in this poll, suggesting that the libertarians stoners are all in for him.) In a Wisconsin survey, Clinton led Huckabee by 12 and Bush and Paul both by 11. In a national Marist poll from April 15, Clinton led Paul Ryan by eight, Christie by 11, Huckabee by 13, Paul by 14, Cruz by 15, and Bush by 16. That’s right—dead last. Behind Cruz. Yes, we’re talking margin of error stuff here, but still, when they crunched the numbers, Bush was dead last.
In almost every head-to-head poll against Clinton you look at Bush is down there with the pack—a couple of points better than Marco Rubio, a couple worse than Christie, and so on. All of them are typically anywhere from eight to 15 points behind her.
Bush doesn’t have problems just against Clinton. The NBC/Journal survey found that among “animated partisans,” 58 percent liked Paul and only 44 percent viewed Bush favorably. A WMUR New Hampshire poll recently found Bush in a distant fourth place behind Paul, Christie, and Ryan. More typically in GOP primary polling, Bush is in the first tier—but he is never clearly in front, the way an establishment candidate is supposed to be.
He’s ham-handed, and he’s been terrible at generating any positive attention for himself in the last couple of years.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, Bush has real liabilities. He hasn’t been in office for eight years. He’s simply a little out of practice. His interventions over the past year—his book, for example—just haven’t done for his profile what he hoped. That statement about undocumented immigrants coming to America illegally as an “act of love” was all right by me, but I’m not a GOP primary voter. And even I thought that was kind of an odd way to put it. He’s ham-handed, and he’s been terrible at generating any positive attention for himself in the last couple of years. For a rich guy who doesn’t have to work, that shouldn’t be so hard. Remember how back in the mid-2000s, GOP operatives speaking on background used to drop quotes in the press averring that he was “the smart one”? Well, lately I’ve been thinking maybe George was the smart one.
So that’s the part of the problem that has to do with Bush himself. But the other part of his problem has to do with the party. As I’ve written before, the GOP has almost always nominated the establishment guy. But this might be a different GOP—a party in which the establishment paladins just might not be in control of things the way they once were. And if Christie is not indicted or tarnished and does run, then they’ll have two establishment candidates splitting the big donors and the non-radical voters. That would grease Paul’s path like nothing else.
So if Kathleen Parker is right and Bush does jump in, as you read all those stories crowning him the new favorite because he’s the establishment, just remember that while he may be the establishment choice, in this GOP, that doesn’t count for much.