I read A.B. Stoddard’s column at The Hill this morning, wondering if there’s another guy named “Jeb Bush” out there thinking of running for president who I’m not aware of. Opening line: “Guess who isn’t running for president? Jeb Bush. Just listen to him.” Okay, let’s listen to him. Three days ago he sat down with the Wall Street Journal for a wide-ranging policy chat and acknowledged that he’s thinking of jumping into the 2016 race. He’s issuing public statements on the Obama amnesty saga, holding fundraisers for Republicans in high-profile races, and lately even giving speeches on foreign policy. None of this is stuff you’d expect a former governor who hasn’t held office of any kind for seven years to be doing unless he was thinking very hard of running for something.
And I’m guessing that something isn’t a Senate seat back home in Florida.
Two top New Hampshire Republican strategists have been contacted this week by a Jeb Bush confidant to discuss their interest in leading the former Florida governor’s prospective presidential campaign there, RealClearPolitics has learned from GOP sources in the Granite State…
Both were given the proverbial instruction to “keep your powder dry,” suggesting that Bush is leaning toward entering the race early next year.
“I think the decision’s been made, personally,” said one of the strategists who was contacted by Bush’s camp and who spoke to RCP under the condition of anonymity…
“I’ve definitely perceived an uptick in the perception of him doing this,” one of the consultants said of the conversation this week with the Bush confidant…
“Of the Bushes, he’s the guy I like the best,” said one of the strategists. “If I were betting money on it, I’d bet he’d be the nominee because you’ll have eight to 10 conservatives beating each other up, and someone will take the middle, and it’ll be either him or Christie.”
Stoddard’s logic seems to be that Jeb won’t do it because he’s seen up close what a nasty business running for president, not to mention actually being president, is. Well, so had George W. Bush and it didn’t stop him. I can think of someone else who fits that description, and you know what? I’m pretty sure she’s going to end up running too. Go figure that some people buffeted by extreme wealth and political connections think they can endure the hardships associated with being the most powerful person in the world.
The big question about Jeb, increasingly, isn’t whether he’ll run but how antagonistic to the conservative base he’ll be if he does. He told a bunch of CEOs the other day that to win the presidency, a Republican candidate must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general, without violating your principles.” I.e. no more pandering to righties in the primary a la McCain and Romney, only to turn around and run as a more centrist Republican in the general. If he runs, he’s saying, he’ll run as a centrist and let the chips fall where they may. Ace thinks that strategy is a sure loser, essentially a “protest candidacy” where the target of the protest is, er, the party’s own base, but it doesn’t need to be. What Bush needs to worry about even more than his policy heresies is his tone. Says Matt Bai:
I’m no strategist, but it seems to me that the smart play this time, if you’re Bush or Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, is to let the other guys fight it out for Survivalist of the Year and set your sights on the party’s other, broader constituencies: the right-leaning independents and mainline conservatives who fear that a Republican nominee too easily caricatured as extreme will lead the country straight into the embrace of Hillary Clinton. If you can unify that voting bloc, more or less, and end up going one-on-one with a candidate like Paul or Walker on Super Tuesday, then you’ve got a very real path to the nomination.
Skeptics of the “be yourself” theory will hurl the two words that make every unapologetically pragmatic Republican wince: Jon Huntsman! Well, OK. I spent some time with him, too — enough to know that while Huntsman is a remarkably bright and decent guy, he had nowhere near the clarity of thought or the ability to communicate it that a Bush or a Christie does. And Huntsman, who basically landed in New Hampshire after two years in Beijing, had very little by way of a record or a political brand, which is a problem these other guys don’t have.
There are enough “somewhat conservative” voters to carry Bush to victory if conservatives are split — and if he doesn’t turn into Huntsman along the way. Huntsman’s problem, though, wasn’t that he lacked “clarity of thought,” it’s that in ways large and small he showed contempt for the base of the party whose nomination he was seeking. Remember when he introduced himself to primary voters with a profile in “Vogue”? Remember when he tweeted during the primary campaign, apropos of nothing, that unlike certain people he believed in evolution and global warming? Remember when one of his consultants, John Weaver, complained that the GOP consisted of “a bunch of cranks”? “Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him,” wrote Ross Douthat in November 2011, “but they need to think that he likes them.” Jeb Bush’s difficulty right now is that he seems almost eager to run against the party’s base, which is a recipe for disaster in the general election if not the primaries: The nastier things get, the more likely it is that some conservatives will stay home in November 2016 if he’s the nominee. Maybe he can survive the primaries backing Common Core and an amnesty deal with Democrats — Romney survived RomneyCare, didn’t he? — but he can’t get elected if he’s openly disdainful of grassroots righties. It’s not a policy thing, it’s a not-wanting-to-be-represented-by-someone-who-hates-you thing. Actually, scratch that — it is a policy thing too, as Ramesh Ponnuru explains. If you’re regarded by the grassroots as a true conservative, like, say, Ted Cruz is, you’ll get a lot more slack for your ideological heresies than if you aren’t. Bush is never going to be seen as a conservative but he can, in theory, reposition himself as someone who really likes and respects conservatives. That’ll buy him some leeway on Common Core and immigration.
The good news for Jeb is that the only other centrist in the field is likely to be Christie, and Christie almost certainly hates conservatives more than Bush does — and won’t be able to resist showing it. That could make Jeb seem conciliatory by comparison, which will help righties stomach his nomination if it ends up happening. Exit question: Actually, are we sure Christie will be the only other centrist in the field? Dude. DUDE: