Four Perspectives on Jeb Bush and the Republican Nomination

Giving a holiday gift to American politics junkies everywhere, Jeb Bush has announced that he “will actively explore the possibility of running for president.” At this stage, coverage has mostly been the horse-race bread and butter of junkie-dom, focusing on whether the next Bush in line can win the nomination. Implicit in these stories are ideas about how American political parties and presidential politics function.

Here’s a run-down of the basic perspectives, their implications, and how they relate to each other:

Personal/candidate-centered

Over the past forty years, this has been an important narrative about presidential nominations. Reagan and Clinton were great speakers and “Washington outsiders!” John Kerry was so electable… until he wasn’t – all that wind-surfing. The candidate-centered perspective also captures political presence and skill that can be hard to assess systematically. (This seems to bother some people more than others.) The discussion of possible 2016 contenders has included a healthy dose of attention to personal characteristics: Cruz and Rubio bring their Latino heritage to the table (And J. Bush is married to a woman who was born and raised in Mexico). Chris Christie has that no nonsense attitude -and a different body type than we’re used to seeing in presidential candidates. And Jeb Bush is, of course, a member of what we could properly call a political dynasty.

The New York Times has jumped on this perspective, with Nate Cohn and Jonathan Martin writing about J. Bush’s “persona” as a central aspect of his candidacy. Cohn’s argument seems to be that connection to his brother’s policies, which offended the right flank of the party by expanding government, are a potential liability with the party “base.” Furthermore, he suggests, the habit of criticizing conservatives – his “message and tone” – pose a bigger problem than his actual issue positions.

While Bush’s own political style and experience are certainly relevant, we can expect the family connection to dominate the discussion. In some circles, the linkage with his brother will be a major liability. However, in contrast to Cohn’s argument, I think it’s more likely that most of the people who are repelled by the family name will be unlikely to vote for a Republican in 2016, much less in the Republican primary.

Party base/Tea Party

If you’re paying attention, you’ve probably heard in the last 48 hours that Jeb Bush isn’t the most popular candidate with the Tea Party and the conservative Republican base (which may or may not be the same thing). His stances on immigration and the Common Core are too moderate (or too liberal, whatever, as long as we’re talking about a continuous left-right spectrum.

Nate Silver places J. Bush on an ideological spectrum with other Republicans, and finds that he’s among the least conservative of the putative 2016 crowd – and about level with his dad. His ideological profile also looks pretty similar to that of John McCain and Mitt Romney. As David Karol points out, the preferred candidates of the right often fail to win the nomination.

The question of whether the wariness of the “base” about Jeb Bush will prove fatal to his candidacy gets at some core political science questions about who controls presidential nomination politics, and how that affects outcomes. As with the candidate-centered thesis, the idea that control over nominations had shifted substantially from elites to voters became an important paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars debate about whether primary voters have pulled the parties further from the ideological center.

Furthermore, the contrast between the most recent presidential nomination process in 2012 and the most recent Congressional primary cycles is instructive. The candidacies of Tea Party favorites like Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann stayed on the margins. A party faction that pins its hopes on Rick Santorum is unlikely to emerge happily from the process. But in Congressional primaries, especially the midterm years, the Tea Party has established itself as a group with some staying power, institutional flexibility, and impact. In other words, the Tea Party and other very conservative Republicans have been effective at taking advantage of the Congressional primary process. But, at least in 2012 (and pre-Tea Party, also in 2008) their success in presidential nominating contests has been fairly limited.

The invisible primary/elite influence

One reason why insurgents have been less effective in presidential primaries than in Congressional ones is the elite process that Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller have described as the “invisible primary.” As Hans described in a post earlier today, “The party wants the “best” candidate who can also win, and “best’ for conservatives is a fellow conservative.” So we shouldn’t expect Republican elites to flock to someone who is too moderate.

Bernstein suggests that name recognition mitigates some of the potential issues with the base, noting that, “we can say is that if he were Jeb Smith, a former two-term governor of Florida who has been out of politics since leaving office in 2007, and who has unorthodox positions in more than one policy area, he would be viewed as a longshot.” But the Bush name, he argues, appeals to party elites with the power to donate and to endorse. And these elites are probably much less eager to endorse a candidate who will be too far outside the ideological mainstream, however that may be defined.

The main takeaway so far is the tension between the “electability” concerns of policy demanders and other elites and the ideology concerns of the party activists and voting base. Both Bernstein and Noel frame this in terms of a tradeoff, with the ultimate goal striking a balance between the two sets of considerations.

That may well be what drives the outcome, but let’s take a moment and think about the tension in the process. One of the ideas that I’ve been thinking about as we approach the 2016 nomination season is the fact that the Republicans are choosing their disjunctive leader – the one under whom the Reagan coalition will really fall apart (if you buy the idea of political time and regime politics, as I do). The nomination logic here is not immediately apparent, as parties rarely set out to nominate the candidate who will end their period of dominance. But parties in the late-regime part of the cycle display some identifiable characteristics. They’re looking to reaffirm their beliefs and, at the same time, adapt them to new circumstances.

Viewed through the lens of what happens to political parties after long periods of relative strength, the questions facing Republicans might indicate a political order that has splintered into multiple, clashing institutional logics within the same party. One order is constituted (mostly) by elites, in charge of a powerful but mostly informal process, and primarily concerned with stability and economic prosperity. Their foreign policy is hawkish and neoconservative; their views on immigration pragmatic. The other order includes Tea Party insurgents, and much of the party’s base in the electorate. Their concerns include ideological purity on questions like taxes and national debt, and social issues. Their foreign policy views tend more toward hard lines on immigration and even isolationism. This characterization is hugely reductive, obviously. Insurgent types have their own elite leaders, and some Republicans in the electorate cleave to the former set of policy preferences. But the connection between who controls the selection process and what kinds of nominees will be favored nevertheless dominates our understanding of nomination politics.

The big questions lingering here are whether these tensions distinguish contemporary the Republican Party from the contemporary Democrats, or from nomination struggles in other years. The Democrats, after all, seem to have at least some people questioning whether they might prefer Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton on ideological grounds. And twentieth century Republican history turns up no shortage of nomination clashes between moderates and conservatives.

The Republicans’ 2016 circumstances may still be distinct. If this reading of the correlation between ideology and process is correct, then the debate isn’t just about different candidates or policy preferences, but about entirely different ideas about what it means to be conservative, and what it means to operate as a conservative party. Parties that have reached the disjunctive stage often look for someone to manage the coalition – they nominate engineers like Hoover and Carter. But perhaps there are signs of disjunction in the process as well as in the nominees.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.