Those who prefer speculating about the next presidential election rather than beating their heads against the wall trying to figure a way out of the sequester impasse got something to think about this week courtesy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush, who is making the rounds of every news and talk show that will have him this week to promote a new book, generated some genuine buzz when he specifically refused to rule out running for president in 2016. Throughout the prelude to the 2012 election the younger brother of the 43rd president always avoided playing games about his presidential prospects and definitively ruled out jumping in. Thus, his decision to speak like someone who is actively considering a run has led a lot of political observers to jump to the conclusion that he not only is a candidate, but that he would be a formidable contender.
All this has set the tongues of some in the chattering classes wagging about the possibility of a Bush-Clinton rematch in which the 1992 election will be fought between the son of the Republican standard bearer and the wife of the Democrat. A Jeb-Hillary matchup is certainly a possibility. But as much as Jeb Bush is a politician and a policy advocate who deserves to be taken seriously, a dose of skepticism about the boomlet forming for him is very much in order. It is true that many Democrats love the idea of another Clinton in the White House. But if there is evidence of grass roots enthusiasm among Republicans for another Bush, even one as smart as Jeb, I haven’t seen it.
There have been a lot of arguments lately about the nature of the clash between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party grass roots, much of which has centered on Karl Rove. Rove was the political guru who helped put Jeb’s big brother in the White House and re-elect him, and has become the proxy figure for what passes for a Republican ruling class against which conservatives have railed. The notion of such an entity as a GOP establishment is something of a fiction, as the group of people who really did once run the party from the game rooms of exclusive country clubs and the editorial columns of the New York Herald Tribune are as extinct as the dodo. But if anybody does actually constitute a Republican establishment, it is the Bush family.
I don’t share the virulent antipathy that many Tea Partiers seem to feel for Rove. They see him as someone who is attempting to sell the party’s principles and foist mainstream go-along-to-get-along type politicians on them in the vain hope that they will be more electable than the Christine O’Donnells that the Tea Party has produced. But the lesson of the last two election cycles is that Republicans have lost as many elections with establishment duds as they have with Tea Party extremists.
Nevertheless, anyone expecting Republicans and conservatives to simply stand up and salute just because one of the Bush clan is deigning to make themselves available for the presidency is not realistic.
There might have been a time when Jeb Bush could have united both the establishment types and the Tea Partiers, who liked many of his ideas. But that boat may have sailed. He has a lot to say about issues like education and immigration (although his stand on it in his book is neither as bold as Marco Rubio’s position nor as likely to appeal to the anti-immigrant crowd). But while he might have stood out in a fallow 2012 field of Republican candidates, he now has a lot of competition from the party’s deep bench who do not carry around the baggage of the George W. Bush administration.
The stigma that still attaches to Jeb’s brother may strike many conservatives as unfair, and they are right to think so. But anyone who thinks it is not a potent factor in American politics wasn’t paying attention last year. Incredibly, Barack Obama won re-election by blaming the country’s economic woes on George W. Bush rather than on his own stewardship of the country four years after the latter left office. That sentiment is not likely to disappear in the next four years, making it all the more imperative that the next Republican candidate have no connections with the last Republican president.
This means that the idea of Jeb Bush as the putative leader of the Republican Party doesn’t really add up. My guess is that Jeb knows this as well as anyone else and will probably leave the 2016 race to Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and others who are also not named Bush. In the meantime, Jeb may sell more books on the basis of the speculation he is feeding. If so, good for him–but this far away from the next presidential election, it would appear that many pundits are having trouble telling the difference between publishing and politics.