Why Jeb Bush Would Struggle in ’16

At the Prospect Paul Waldman had a sensible reaction to renewed talk of a Jeb Bush presidential candidacy in 2016:

I get that Bushes look upon national office as a birthright, and any prominent Republican probably looks at the field of potential 2016 contenders and says, “I could beat those guys….” The problem is that the party has left him behind.

It isn’t just a couple of issues like immigration and Common Core that would make things so hard for him. It’s that the dynamics within the GOP have shifted. To characterize it as a battle between the base and the establishment oversimplifies things. Mitt Romney showed that it might be possible for a candidate to be establishment in his bones, but don the vestments of a Tea Partier, perform the rituals of genuflection, and slide into the nomination (and it wouldn’t hurt if your competition was a bunch of chuckleheads). As I’ve argued before, primary voters are ideological satisfiers—they’re not looking for the most ideological candidate, just one who passes a threshold level of acceptability and can win.

Jeb’s problem is that the party’s threshold keeps moving right, and the very fact of his Bushness, plus the fact that he is indeed (at least in people’s perception) the “establishment candidate,” means that he’d probably have to campaign in a tricorner hat and get a picture of Sarah Palin tattooed on his neck to convince Tea Partiers they can trust him. I could be wrong, but I just don’t think he has it in him.

And why not? Well, here’s a theory: Jeb was the “movement conservative” member of the Bush family for years. Had he won his gubernatorial race in 1994 and become the dynastic candidate for president in 2000, he would not have had to go through the “rebranding” exercise his older brother underwent to show he didn’t walk, talk, think or govern like Poppy. As recently as 2012, Jeb’s movement street cred was enough to create a bit of a draft buzz for him at National Review. So perhaps it just doesn’t occur to him he should have to “adjust” to a steadily changing GOP–or maybe he’s just not that calculating to begin with. His stubborn support for Common Core is a real red flag, not so much because it’s a disqualifier but because it’s so obviously a political loser for him. It’s not like Mitt’s RomneyCare, which was a done deal long before his 2012 campaign.

But if the GOP wants an authentic movement conservative circa 1995, Jeb’s their guy. But he’d better get a move on if he wants to be president.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.