Ulysses S. Bush

I’m a sucker for historical analogies, whether I agree with them or not, so naturally I paid attention to Jay Cost’s analysis of Jeb Bush’s appeal to “professional Republicans” as insufficient for the presidential nomination, just as it was for former president Ulysses Grant in 1880, when GOP “Stalwarts” tried but failed to secure a third term for the great general.

What I found most interesting was Cost’s description of Jeb’s elite base of support as being primarily a matter of family patronage, though he begins with the usual disclaimer:

To be clear: the Bushes certainly are not spoilsmen. They play politics with sharp elbows, just like anybody else at that level, but the Bush ethos of civic duty places them far above the grubby pay-to-play politics of the Gilded Age. And yet there is today a class of professional politicians — a modern group of consultants, advisors, donors, lobbyists etc. — who prospered under 12 years of Bush presidencies. They are eager for a Bush restoration in 2016, just as the Stalwarts were clamoring for a return to Grantism in 1880.

So to his supporters, Jebbie’s not exactly “his own man,” as he likes to suggest: he’s the symbol of happy days a certain kind of elite operative wants very badly to return. But the trouble is that he has less of a non-elite electoral base–at this point at least–than his father or brother had in their successful presidential nomination campaigns.

Cost probably over-states the Case for Jebbie in comparing his 2016 campaign to Grant’s in 1880. Yes, many of Grant’s Stalwarts were adamant opponents of civil service reform who wanted a return to the spoils system. But he was also a revered hero in the north; and the champion of all those who opposed the abandonment of southern former slaves that occurred in conjunction with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. And Grant supporters were not all “anti-reform;” most famously they included the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who viewed Grant’s chief pre-Convention opponent, James Blaine, as corrupt to the core (Nast ultimately became a “Mugwump,” abandoning the GOP in 1884 when Blaine finally got the nomination and ran against “reformer” Grover Cleveland). There’s no way Bush has anything like the personal following Grant had then.

On the other hand, Grant may not have had as large a share of “elite” support in 1880 as Bush seems to have today. In 1880 elites were the party, and Grant didn’t have the support he needed in key elite segments.

Cost is right that Bush’s current standing among the rank-and-file Republicans who now get a fairly large say in the nomination contest is weak. I’d argue that an even bigger problem is that the expansion of his standing depends on an electability argument that elites seem to buy, but that isn’t apparent to anyone who just looks at polls or has an intuitive sense that Americans will be at best lukewarm about a third Bush presidency. In addition to his other challenges, Jeb has a harder sell to make to conservative ideologues than either his father or brother given current widespread perceptions that both of them sold out conservatives for a mess of Big Government pottage.

Cost obviously isn’t a big fan of Jeb’s odds either, even though he concedes the “professional Republicans” may be as loyal to the Bush family as the Stalwarts were to Grant. We’ll see about that. Right now the most obvious way for Jeb to gain an advantage is to use his cash and his elite backing to trash rivals one by one, just as Mitt Romney did in 2012. He’s swearing he won’t do that. Maybe all the money and talent he’s attracting will buy him a successful strategy. It’s not very obvious what it would be.

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.