So Jeb is running. Or is he? And he’s really formidable! Or… is he?
I can’t remember in my adult lifetime a presidential candidate quite like Jeb Bush. Every presidential election we have our A-list candidates, your Clintons and your Romneys and your Humphreys and indeed your Bushes. And, every election, we have our quasi-comic-relief candidates, your Al Haigs and Gary Bauers and Bill Richardsons. These archetypes usually reside in separate life forms. But in John Ellis Bush, they exist in the same body.
The A-list case is: He’s a Bush. And… and… OK, he was the governor of a huge and electorally important state. And largely considered to have been, to those who can still remember, a successful and reasonably popular one. And there’s his Latina wife. But really, the A-list case comes down to the fact of his last name. Just as a football coach named Lombardi is going to win automatic positive “free media” until he turns out to be a total loser, a politician named Bush is going to be assumed to be a serious playah until he undeniably proves otherwise. Until then, establishment money is going to cascade to him.
The quasi-comic-relief case consists of a much longer list. First of all: Well, he’s a Bush. That is to say, while the name confers a certain status among insiders and the media, at the same time it reminds too many voters of the brother. This would be an obvious problem in a general election, but I think even in a primary. The Republican red-hots, the pols who play to the base that dominates the primary process, have been ranting against Dubya and his big-spending ways since the day he left office. There’s no reason to think the family tree will bring much good will.
The bigger thing is this. What in the world is a guy who wants to run for president doing, precisely during the months of presidential speculation, starting up an offshore private-equity firm? But Bush has done exactly that, filing the papers for BH Global Aviation with the SEC right around Thanksgiving. The fund raised $61 million in September, largely from foreign investors, and it incorporated in the U.K. and Wales to avoid paying American taxes. Business questions are raised—who starts a PE firm and bails on it in a matter of mere months?—but more salient are the political questions: Why would a candidate, on the eve of a presidential run, go out of his way to create what is in effect his very own brand spanking new Bain Capital?
Then there’s the service gap. He hasn’t been in office since January 2007, and more to the point hasn’t run a campaign since 2002. To find a presidential candidate with as long a gap between campaigns (excluding those like Eisenhower, who’d never run), you have to reach back to James Buchanan. Questions of rust will arise, of course, but more than that, we can fairly wonder whether he has a feel for the politico-culture landscape these days. The conservative movement of today is a rather fiercer creature than the one his brother held at bay with a few Scriptural dog whistles.
Here’s more, in terms of problems he’ll have with the base: He’s on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Come have a look at the “our work” page at the philanthropy’s website: Beyond Coal. Vibrant Oceans. Reproductive Health. Tobacco Control. No, no guns per se, but of course Mike Bloomberg is so identified in the right-wing mind with the torching of the Second Amendment that that one will undoubtedly come up.
Beyond this there’s the pro-immigration position. Rush Limbaugh has been laying into Bush on this one. There is such a thing in presidential primary politics as a single-issue deal-breaker. Ask Rudy Giuliani about how his pro-choice position worked out for him. And Jeb, of course, will also have to deal with his outspoken support for Common Core, which the Republican base loathes.
The polls? He runs a little bit ahead of the competition, with 14 percent in the current RCP average to Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee’s 10 and Paul Ryan’s 9.7 (and Ben Carson’s 8.8)! And with regard to taking on Hillary Clinton, he does no better than any of the rest of them. He’s 5 to 10 points behind her in just about every poll. That just is not the traditional idea of the frontrunner.
Throw it all into the kettle and, what? Well, it’s possible to imagine Bush as the nominee and even as the next president. To return to the Lombardi analogy, one would always imagine that a Lombardi would have it in him to find a way to win. So it is with a Bush. They are two-for-two, after all.
But maybe that’s just a psychological mirage. Maybe it’s just as easy, if not easier, to imagine him lasting four primaries. Here’s your 2016 GOP presidential primary calendar, at least as it currently exists. It starts as usual with Iowa and New Hampshire, which seem respectively more like Huckabee/Cruz and Ryan/Paul states than Bush states. Florida doesn’t come along until March 1. Has anyone ever—or since 1976, when we really started having lots of primaries and caucuses—won a party nomination without winning a primary or caucus until March? I don’t think that can be done.
And it might be easiest of all imagining him “exploring” a candidacy for a while and then deciding the hell with it. As has been oft-observed, he doesn’t seem to want to be president, and by most accounts his wife has never been hot on the idea. It used to be frequently said back in 2000 that Jeb was “the smart brother.” Given the tribulations that await him on the hustings versus the easy millions that dangle before him in the global aviation business, the choice that would prove he’s the smart one seems pretty clear.