Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?
The conventional wisdom in the mainstream liberal media about the Republican Party is that it has been abducted by its right wing and has no hope of winning another presidential election until it learns to win back the hearts of women and the growing number of Hispanic voters. While much of the overheated rhetoric heard from liberals about the Tea Party is both inaccurate and unfair, there is some truth to this argument.
No political party can win by only appealing to the most extreme elements of its base. Nor can the GOP hope to prevail by deliberately snubbing those elements of the electorate that it lost badly in 2012. Bush is probably the most appealing of all the possible Republican centrists who could run and has as good, if not better, chance to appeal to the independent voters as any candidate. It should also be pointed out that in spite of the conservative cast of the party, in the last two election cycles the GOP has nominated the most moderate of the major contenders.
The primary obstacle to a Bush candidacy has also collapsed as President Obama’s disastrous second term has helped burnish the memory of his predecessor. The Bush name may still be a punch line on the left but George W. Bush’s noble demeanor after leaving office and the catastrophes in the Middle East that have unfolded on Obama’s watch have taken the sting out of the Bush legacy.
There is also a belief that Bush will stand out as a reasoned voice in a 2016 GOP field that may be dominated by more hard-line conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or a libertarian like Senator Rand Paul. In theory, that should set up Jeb for the same kind of run to the nomination that enabled John McCain to win in 2008 and Mitt Romney to play in 2012.
But there are some obvious obstacles that must be overcome before the Bush clan and their supporters starts planning their move back to the White House. Despite the rush in the media to anoint him as the Republican front-runner in a race that will start to take shape next summer, Jeb Bush cannot win the nomination, let alone the presidency, by running against his party’s base.
Let’s understand that although Bush has a well-earned reputation as a good governor and a serious thinker about policy issues, no one should assume that most Republicans are all that eager to put a Bush on their national ticket for the seventh time in the last ten presidential elections. Though Republicans have tended in the past to like familiar names, it is the Democrats who are more deferential these days to existing dynasties as the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton shows. The 2016 race looks to be the most wide-open GOP race in several decades and many in the party not only agree with Barbara Bush that the country needs some fresh names, not recycled dynasties. With Hillary Clinton as their opponent, Republicans will be better off providing a fresh alternative to an attempt to gain revenge for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 defeat at the hands of her husband.
Far more troubling for Bush is his seeming determination to win not by winning over conservatives but by flaunting his disagreements on key issues.
To note the gap between Bush’s positions on issues like immigration and the Common Core education and possible tax increases is not the same thing as agreeing with all of his critics. Bush’s instincts on immigration are correct and the GOP would do well not to heed those in the conservative camp who believe that the growth of the Hispanic population is somehow a negative thing for the country irrespective of how we change the immigration laws. Common Core is a complicated issue on which smart people differ and others would do well not to try and demonize those on either side. And even when it comes to theoretical debates about raising taxes, Bush’s refusal to give an ironclad pledge can easily be defended, as our Pete Wehner did here last week.
But Bush’s complaints about the rightward trend of the party bodes ill for his efforts to win over the same conservatives that he is going to need to win both the nomination and the general election. It should be remembered that while both McCain and Romney won the nomination contest as the leading moderates in a field populated by conservatives, they did so by seeking to bridge the gap with the right, not smacking it down as Bush sometimes seems to want to do.
The complaints from some on the right that McCain and Romney lost because they were insufficiently conservative are bunk. Both probably did as well, if not better than possible Republican opponent of Barack Obama. But they’re not wrong when they note that no GOP candidate can win without an enthusiastic base or by disdaining their concerns.
Bush’s qualifications are second to none. But the current polls that put him at the head of a field of possible candidates is based purely on name recognition. If Jeb Bush wants to be the face of the Republican Party in 2016, he must forge a new winning coalition that must include those who disagree with him. If he can’t, no matter how many leading establishment donors embrace him, there will be no third President Bush.