The GOP may have to return to the Bush leagues.
In presidential nominating contests, the Republican establishment has always won out—from the first Bush, to the tried but tired Dole, to W., then McCain, and most recently Romney, who nonetheless had to labor mightily to emerge from the weakest field of candidates in either party, ever. Really, Rick Santorum? Although casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s millions of misspent dollars propped him up, Romney, with even greater resources from the party’s long-reigning plutocrats, ground Santorum down over time and along the way dispatched the unthinkable Newt Gingrich. The journey was excruciatingly long for the establishmentarians and cost them more than they ever anticipated. But in the end, they had their way.
And they weren’t wrong. Sure, as the unskewed polls unraveled, Mr. 47 Percent lost—with just 47 percent of the popular vote. It was a fitting end; but any of the other GOP hopefuls, except for the forgotten and mortally moderate Jon Huntsman, would have turned in a far bleaker performance.
In the aftermath, those who traditionally dominate the Republican nominating process realize they are weaker than before and are therefore anxious. So from Karl Rove to the Romney big givers, they swiftly and all but explicitly coalesced around Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor with apparent crossover appeal. Then his prospects crashed into the pylons of the George Washington Bridge; he’s mired in investigations—despite being “cleared” in a self-appointed and self-serving inquiry conducted by a law firm which, during its exertions, donated $10,000 to the Republican Governors Association headed by…Christie. And there may be more to come—as there was in a compelling New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza, who deconstructed the benign, bipartisan Christie of Hurricane Sandy and revealed a two-faced wheeler-dealer in the smelly interstices of Jersey politics.
Christie is also proving to be an awkward national candidate. At Adelson’s recent cattle call in Las Vegas, the governor called the West Bank “occupied territories”—accurate enough, but it’s Politics 101, on the first page of the briefing book, to avoid that term with Adelson and his hard-line crowd. Christie cravenly apologized, but the president of the Zionist Organization of America promptly responded: “I don’t believe his apology for one second.”
When things go bad, they generally get worse. And of such stuff as this nominees are not made. Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone avers that he’s “absolutely” sticking with Christie. But more and more, as a Republican consultant told me, the gathering mood across the establishment is that “the big boy is finished”: He may run, but he won’t catch the prize. He handed it in at the toll plaza on the bridge approach. And former New Jersey governor and Christie mentor Tom Kean says that if “he’s just telling a lie to everybody”—about what he knew and when—“then he’s finished. As governor, too.”
For the GOP, all this raises a perennial question from the movie New Jack City: “Who else you got?” Perhaps unbelievably, Romney has left his exiled luxury in La Jolla and “returned to the political stage,” dispensing campaign largesse and his own dubious apparition on Republican hopefuls. But the most he can hope for is modest relevance. As someone who has been involved with him put it privately, “A Romney rerun? I’m afraid he would ride Rafalca, the dancing horse, again”—his wife’s dressage entry in the 2012 London Olympics.
The Republicans already stumping hard in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina appeal to the Tea Partiers, but they are anything but the establishment’s cup of tea. To one degree or another, they’re firebrands on social issues, from women’s rights to gay rights to immigration reform. They would intensify the alienation of Hispanics and younger voters—and entrench a permanent GOP minority in presidential politics. Each of them has distinctive and debilitating flaws in the eyes of Republican power brokers.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is an isolationist, at odds with the interventionist impulse of the party, or at least the party’s dominant neocon nomenklatura. Paul’s views on Israel make Christie sound like Benjamin Netanyahu. The senator has said: “Our national security is not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon.” I suspect that at minimum, John McCain would privately mark his ballot for Hillary Clinton over Paul. And domestically, Paul’s peculiar views on the Federal Reserve are anathema on Wall Street. He may believe he’s building a “winning coalition,” as one of his advisers told The Wall Street Journal. The party establishment, a Journal columnist swiftly made clear, has concluded that instead he threatens “a humbling landslide defeat.”
Ted Cruz, the mega-bright, mega-demagogic senator from Texas, now boasts a donation from Donald Trump, whose combed-over blessing signifies how fundamentally unserious Cruz is. Serious Republicans with deep pockets aren’t inclined to the idea that Americans will elect someone to run the government who has shut down the government—profoundly unpopular when Gingrich did it in the ’90s and when Cruz engineered it last year. Since then, his fundraising, driven in the heat of the moment by fevered anti-government activists, has “dropped sharply.” He has 50,000 individual donations, but he’s hardly the toast of uptown givers.
Cruz voted against Hurricane Sandy relief and the Violence Against Women Act. He could be the least viable Republican nominee since the pre-civil rights, pre-gay rights, pro-bomb Barry Goldwater. McCain called Cruz a “wacko bird” and later took it back, about as insincerely as possible. But McCain is right—and he applied the term to Rand Paul, too. I would be happy to endorse either of them for the GOP nod—and the GOP establishment would be anything but happy to hear one of them deliver an acceptance speech.
That leaves former Arkansas governor and Fox News propagandist Mike Huckabee, who a week ago proclaimed that “there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than in the United States.” That may play in the fringe precincts of the party—and Huckabee is a favorite of the religious right, which generally has an iron hold on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. No wonder: He has denounced Democrats for supporting birth control for women who can’t control “their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government.”
What a collection of men who will not be president; Republican grandees are looking at governors like Ohio’s rumpled John Kasich and Wisconsin’s union-busting Scott Walker—and looking again at Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. But Kasich and Walker face competitive re-elections; their national presence is spectral, their national potential speculative. And Ryan would be confronted with the politically poisonous consequences of his Medicare-privatizing, education-slashing, childcare-cutting, and woman-bashing budget.
So inevitably the centripetal force of the establishment GOP will move toward Jeb Bush. He may not run—or he may spurn his mother’s advice and plunge in. He says he will decide by the end of the year. He may bear the burden of the Bush name and his brother’s failed presidency, widely reviled in both parties. But he wouldn’t bear the burden of the Ryan budget. And he would have his brother’s advantage in 2000, which brought W. within an inch of the White House, where Jeb and a partisan Supreme Court could push him over the line: Jeb could campaign as the reworded version of a compassionate conservative, the last GOP theme that tracked the mainstream. He could even reprise the tactic of pledging to end gridlock—to transcend the “the bitter arguments of the last few years… to change the tone in Washington,” as George W. promised in his 2000 speech accepting the GOP nomination.
Jeb can try that trick again because he is as seemingly separate from the Congress of “no” as his brother was from the Gingrich Congress. Jeb Bush is conservative, very conservative, on contentious social issues, but he doesn’t come across as crazed. He sounds reasonable and looks likable, even if he is the ideal candidate of the economic royalists. He is the establishment’s establishmentarian.
Of course, that portends trouble on the ideological edges, which are increasingly potent in GOP primaries. At a New Hampshire gathering of true believers, Jeb’s name was roundly booed when the audience heard that he had spoken humanely about undocumented immigrants: Many of them had come to America out of “love” for their children, he said. He was “public enemy No. 1 at the Granite State’s conservative gathering.”
If Jeb reaches for the nomination, there will be a titanic battle between the party establishment and the Tea Party. Steve Schmidt, McCain’s strategist in 2008, insists that in the end Republicans usually settle on the most electable candidate. To get by, this Bush may be forced to trim his positions, although the cautionary tale of Romney suggests that he would have to tack artfully and carefully for the sake of the general election. Certainly he will have the resources to outlast, discredit, and disqualify his rivals.
Finally and inadvertently, Hillary Clinton may help Jeb navigate this rocky road. If, and in my view when, she runs she will be “the inevitable Democratic nominee”—and voters will know it. Then the latest New Hampshire right-wing confab may be more a case of sound and fury than a predictor of the ultimate outcome because in states like New Hampshire, where independents can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary, they will be drawn to the undecided race, free to take a GOP ballot—and cast it for a Jeb Bush. And then it will be up to him and his allies in the party establishment to do the rest. After protracted and bitter months, we will know whether Republicans want a real chance again in presidential contests.
What we don’t know yet is whether Jeb has the stomach for this fight. Not long ago, I observed on television that he is likely to be most electable Republican. I received emails from angry progressives who inexplicably assumed that I was for him. In fact, I dislike what he did as governor in Florida—and for painful and obvious reasons, detest what he did during the 2000 election. But analytically, I’m convinced that he’s the GOP’s flawed best hope. Their perennial eminences know it, too. I’m also convinced that Clinton will prevail, but he won’t make it easy.
In the primaries, Jeb Bush just might be drowned in a tidal wave of tea. If not, the 2016 election will be back to the future—Clinton versus Bush.
Democrats don’t want anyone else. And Republicans—who the hell else they got?