Bill Kristol: C'mon, there's no way Jeb Bush will be the nominee

Ben Smith said the same thing yesterday, writing that “the notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party.” Used to? We went into battle against ObamaCare in 2012 with the guy who signed a law that paved the way for ObamaCare. We faced an electorate that was war-weary after five years of Iraq in 2008 with the most hawkish possible candidate we could find. Never, ever underestimate the establishment’s ability to sell a bad candidate to the masses of Republican primary voters who don’t pay much attention to politics and are eager for a familiar, theoretically “electable” choice. Tell ’em what’s up, Ramesh:

As I’ve argued in several Bloomberg columns, the party since 1984 has given its presidential nomination only to people who are at its ideological center of gravity or to its left, and never to anyone to its right. There are reasons for that pattern — having to do with, among other things, the perennial inability of the party’s right to agree on a candidate — and those reasons haven’t disappeared.

Neither Perry nor Huntsman had the support of the party’s establishment, or the national network of funders and supporters, that Bush would have. Perry’s notorious immigration comment during the 2012 campaign — he called some of his opponents heartless on the issue — harmed him so badly because he needed to solidify the conservative end of the party against an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney…

Bush’s position within the primary electorate, in other words, would be more like that of Senator John McCain — who won the nomination not so long ago, in 2008. Actually, it would be better than McCain’s, as McCain’s record included a lot more deviations from the party line than Bush’s does.

Let me paint you a picture. Bush announces he’s running. Soon after, Rubio announces that he isn’t, having concluded that too many of his potential advisors and fundraisers will gravitate towards Jeb. Paul Ryan likewise decides he’ll pass, figuring his best bet at influence is as the next Ways and Means chairman. Bush hits the trail, talking up education reform and ticking off a few well-chosen points of disagreement with his brother’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, Christie, his main rival for establishment support, is too damaged by Bridgegate and never gathers much momentum. Neither does Jindal, who’s overshadowed by bigger-name candidates both to his left (Bush) and his right (Rand Paul and Ted Cruz) and can’t quite find a niche. Bush, now largely unchallenged in the center and center-right, consolidates their support. Over on the right, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz bash each other’s brains in on foreign policy and the NSA until one of them emerges as the conservative choice. That’s when Bush’s backers launch a ferocious campaign attacking Cruz/Paul as fringe material — government shutdowns! a disarmed military! — who’ll never stand a chance against Hillary. It works and Jeb sweeps to the nomination, only to lose badly in the general when voters are forced to decide whether they want to return to “the Clinton era” or “the Bush era.” The only X factor in all this is Scott Walker, who’s prominent enough after his big fight with the unions to find the sort of niche that’ll elude Jindal. He could be a compromise candidate between the right, which fears that Cruz and Paul really aren’t electable, and the center, which fears that the Bush brand will be poison in the general election. Bushworld will have to deal with Walker somehow. If he loses his bid for reelection as governor in Wisconsin, that’ll do it, but no one expects him to. How do you destroy him on the launch pad?

When push comes to shove, I think the GOP establishment in the tea-party era regards its first and most important duty to be stopping conservative candidates in the primary. Partly that’s because they think ideologues can’t win a national election, partly it’s because they fear the diminution of their own power if someone like Paul becomes president, and partly it’s because I think they’d feel more comfortable with center-leftists like the Clintons, who won’t do anything “unpredictable,” than they would with GOP wild cards like Paul or Cruz. If you want to stop Jeb, you need to give them a better centrist alternative. Thanks to Bridgegate, there probably isn’t one — although maybe Walker, betting that tea partiers won’t turn on him after winning the war over labor in Wisconsin, will position himself ostentatiously as a centrist for the presidential race. And if you want them to support a right-wing nominee in the general, in the unlikely event that we end up with a right-wing nominee, you need the left to nominate an “unpredictable” liberal so that they can embrace the GOP nominee as the lesser of two evils. Elizabeth Warren would fit the bill. But that’s probably not happening either.