Jeb Bush huddles with advisors: How can I avoid being tripped up by the conservative base in the primaries?

Good question, but the question Jeb should be considering is how do you survive two tons of ROMNEYMANIA dropping square on your head. ‘Cause it’s comin’, son.

No, seriously, with each passing day this sounds more like Huntsman II. But with lots, lots, lots more money involved.

“I just said to him, ‘I think if you look back, despite the far right’s complaints, it is the centrist that wins the nomination,’” Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he told Mr. Bush.

In the past few weeks, Mr. Bush has moved toward a run for the White House. His family’s resistance has receded. His advisers are seeking staff. And the former governor is even slimming down, shedding about 15 pounds thanks to frequent swimming and personal training sessions after a knee operation last year.

But before pursuing the presidency, Mr. Bush is grappling with the central question of whether he can prevail in a grueling primary battle without shifting his positions or altering his persona to satisfy his party’s hard-liners. In conversations with donors, friends and advisers, he is discussing whether he can navigate, and avoid being tripped up by, the conservative Republican base…

“I think people are ready for somebody honest, frank and willing to tell them what they think,” said Mr. Baker, adding of Mr. Bush, “I think he could run in a primary where he’s true to himself, his values and policy positions.”…

“We often say, ‘Let Jeb be Jeb,’” is how Mike Murphy, a longtime adviser, put it.

I’m not sure why John McCain, who’s happily posed more than once as a border hawk in primaries to pander to righties before reverting to form, is advising Jeb Bush to free his inner centrist. Either way, the takeaway from the Times story is the same as it was in the last few splashy “Jeb’s thinking about it!” features that have come down the news pike: As one ominous line late in the piece puts it, Jeb wants to run a “truth-telling campaign,” a phrase that sounds a lot like Huntsman-ese for “explaining to conservatives why they’re wrong.” With each new story in this vein that gets published, suspicions on the right deepen that Bush is guilty of the cardinal sin that Huntsman was guilty of and that the GOP’s congressional leadership, particularly in the House, seems too often guilty of, namely, believing that the Republican Party’s conservative base is a bigger problem for America than Democratic orthodoxy is. Is he running because he has a conservative vision, the odd Common Core or immigration heresy aside? Or is he running because the wingnuts are threatening to wrest the nomination from the donor class and someone with clout needs to step up and punch them in the face? Why would any tea partier turn out in the general election for a guy who took that approach with them, however successfully, in the primaries?

“If he goes forward with a campaign in which he avoids trying to appease the most conservative voters and wins the nomination as well as the presidency,” the Times notes, “it could reshape Republican politics for a generation.” I think that’s the deeper goal here, if not for Jeb himself than certainly for many of the establishmentarians who are egging him on to run as a loud and proud RINO. If he does that and wins, it’ll theoretically convince RINOs everywhere that there’s little to fear in challenging the tea party. (That’s gravely mistaken, as TPers can and do punch above their weight in Senate and especially House primaries, but that’ll be the takeaway.) It’ll demoralize righties for awhile too and make centrism newly respectable for grassroots Republicans who aren’t keen on the tea party for whatever reason. All of this is right in line with the more aggressive approach taken this year by the donor class to beat back conservative challenges in congressional primaries; Jeb winning the nomination as an unapologetic centrist would be something of a knockout blow. But the more that perception takes hold among conservatives, that the Bush candidacy is a torpedo aimed at them deliberately, obviously the greater incentive they’ll have to resist Jeb, even if it means refusing to turn out for him against Hillary. After all, if he loses the general election because they stayed home, it’ll send the message that they can never be challenged so directly in the primaries again. If you think the party’s divided now, imagine it after a Hillary victory that was helped along by animosity between the GOP base and its own nominee.

One interesting question is whether Christie or Romney would be willing to play the same tea-party-crushing role for establishmentarians as Jeb. Christie probably would because he’s Christie; the more cautious Romney, whose career is one long story of telling people what they want to hear and then reversing himself if need be, might not. (Which is ironic, since Romney was one of the forces behind the establishment’s big primary wins over conservatives this year.) Anyway, for your exit question, explain something to me: Why would a center-right voter prefer Jeb Bush to Scott Walker? We all do understand, I hope, that Walker will be running basically as a centrist, yes? He doesn’t need to pander to righties; he spent four years taking withering fire from lefties for his collective bargaining reforms and beat them at every turn. Unless he comes out for single-payer, he’s bulletproof on the right. I think he’s going to run as a similar sort of pragmatist as Bush — lots of talk about jobs and education, squishy on immigration, socially conservative but low key about it, and if tea partiers start getting restless with him, he’ll pull the ol’ “remember the time the unions spent millions to recall me and I kicked the sh*t out of them?” card. And then everyone will quiet down. He’s much younger than Bush, has midwestern appeal that Bush doesn’t, and more importantly, lacks all of the Bush family baggage that Jeb will be carrying around. So like I say, if you find Ted Cruz and Rand Paul a bit too far right, why would you prefer Jeb to Walker?

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