Establishment Primary

Bush, Christie, Romney: Who’ll Be the GOP Class Warrior?

Bush, Christie, and Romney are already duking it out. The winner will be the one who most squarely gets on the side of the working class.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

It’s not even 2015, but the Republicans’ rich-guy establishment primary is underway for real. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Mitt Romney are each doing their best to keep their hopes and options alive. Stories abound of high-end donors being asked to keep their powder dry, while the party’s would-be nominees figure out what they want to do next.

Yet, the most interesting detail of this minuet is watching Romney put on his political “consultant cap” and chivvy Jeb for being tied to England’s Barclays Bank and the now defunct Lehman Brothers. In the words of Mitt, “You saw what they did to me with Bain Capital . . . What do you think they’ll do to Bush over Barclays?”

So what was Mitt talking about? According to a report published last April in The New York Times, in 2008 Bush, serving as an advisor to Lehman, went to Mexican billionaire and Times shareholder Carlos Slim in a failed eleventh-hour effort to resuscitate the dying investment bank. Slim turned Bush down, and Lehman filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, just weeks before the presidential election.

Jeb next found himself as an advisor to Barclays, which had picked through the carcass of what was left of Lehman. These days, Barclays finds itself under investigation both here and in England for purported foreign exchange manipulation and other sins, even after the bank has already paid out hundreds of millions in fines in connection with rigging interest rates. To be clear, Bush was not involved in any wrongdoing, but Barclays’ woes are out there.

Then last week, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a banner headline “Jeb Bush Has a Mitt Romney Problem.” This report dished on how filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission listed “Bush as chairman and manager of a new offshore private equity fund, BH Global Aviation, which raised $61 million in September, largely from foreign­investors.”

To put things into perspective, BH Global Aviation is just one of at least three such Bush-driven funds. In other words, BH Global might look like a Republican analog to the Clinton Global Initiative, the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, and the Hillary Clinton $300,000 speech tour without the self-aggrandizement or the pretense. Instead, it’s unapologetically about making money.

Yet financialism can leave voters feeling queasy, and candidates grasping for answers. For example, even after the late Sen. Ted Kennedy pummeled Romney over his investments as Romney unsuccessfully sought to unseat the Senator in 1994, Romney was flummoxed when the Obama campaign bashed him over Bain.

This year, Kansas’s voters rejected the independent bid of Greg Orman, a private equity player, to unseat Senate incumbent Pat Roberts. After leading Roberts, the wheels came off of Orman’s candidacy when word got out that he had sat on the board of a private-equity firm founded by Rajat Gupta, a convicted felon and inside-trader.

And in the case of Romney, it’s unclear if he has really internalized that lesson. After Romney lost in 2012, he still hadn’t figured it out. In a post-election interview with The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, Romney could only acknowledge of his infamous 47 percent remark that “well, clearly that was a very damaging quote and hurt my campaign effort.” He also continued to channel his inner Mitt, telling Balz that Americans remained most concerned about borrowing and spending—when in fact jobs were and are the top priority for an overwhelming majority of Americans.

Memo to all Republican contenders: The GOP is now the home of white working- and middle-class voters. It’s no longer about Thurston Howell III.

As for Christie, much as he tries, he can’t shake free of Bridgegate. The word out of New Jersey is that federal prosecutors may criminally charge Christie’s aides under a provision of the U.S. Code that makes it illegal to intentionally misapply federal funds and property. Here, prosecutors may argue that since the George Washington Bridge is the beneficiary of federal funds, and the bridge was shutdown purely for the sake of political revenge, then Christie’s aides broke the law. To add to his woes, New Jerseyans are telling pollsters that their guy just isn’t ready for prime time. Christie is also the same fellow who spent his 2013 election night with Steven A. Cohen, whose hedge fund shortly thereafter pleaded guilty to insider trading.

So where to go from here? For openers, the Republicans should start taking about how falling oil prices are giving working Americans the tax break the Obama administration begrudges them. Next, the GOP should hammer away at how our roads, bridges, and tunnels are crumbling, and push for an infrastructure initiative. If building America’s highways was good enough for President Eisenhower, and is also expressly endorsed by the Constitution, how can the Republicans go wrong by rebuilding America?

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Yes, the party has been opposed to public works projects, but the reality is that America’s infrastructure is deteriorating, and the longer we wait, the greater the problem becomes. Obviously, such a campaign should be tied to the fact that America’s workforce is dwindling, with men and women, but particularly men, dropping out and spending their days staring at the internet or glued to television.

In the end, talking about family values is one thing; doing something about them is something else, and without well-paying jobs, marriage is quickly becoming one more totem of the upper reaches of the social ladder. Scolding Blue America may feel satisfying, but it doesn’t mesh with the reality that the high-end Deep Blue suburbs of Larchmont and Newton are places where families thrive and worship.

Instead, the Republicans should tie their push for infrastructure to getting folks off the couch and back to work. As a matter of dollars and cents, America in the short term may be able to afford disability and food stamps. Still, over the longer haul, able-bodied Americans sitting on the sidelines watching our roads crumble is not a recipe for success. Rather, it is a death knell for the American dream. Wayne and Garth are not national role models.

After the story broke in Bloomberg about Jeb’s latest business ventures, the Republican donor class grew understandably defensive about the implicit attack on the financial industry and simultaneously protective of Jeb. That alone, however, won’t cut it with the Republican base or with the country. Wall Street may channel dollars to the GOP, but it doesn’t fill it with votes -- which lie elsewhere, and elsewhere being the American heartland.

Still, there’s time to get things right. The GOP should embrace the work ethic as its mantra, and this time act like they mean it. Losing three elections in a row would be embarrassing.