I’m not of the generation of political reporters who have long known Jeb Bush, and who say on the Sunday shows that he’s a strong candidate for the Republican nomination for president.
I’ve actually met him only once, in a gorgeous breakfast room atop Manhattan’s Bloomberg Tower, in front of a sweeping view of the East River. The breakfast was part of a series with a distinctly Bloombergian vibe: editors rather than reporters, healthy snacks, elite centrism. I asked Jeb there about the Republican Party, whose mantle he’s now apparently considering seeking. He didn’t need much prodding, either, to go after his fellow Republicans or to blunder into making news.
“Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” Bush said, adding that he views the hyper-partisan moment as “temporary.”
“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” he said. Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”
The notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party. Bush has been out of a game that changed radically during the 12 years(!) since he last ran for office. He missed the transformation of his brother from Republican savior to squish; the rise of the tea party; the molding of his peer Mitt Romney into a movement conservative; and the ascendancy of a new generation of politicians — Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, among them — who have been fully shaped by and trained in that new dynamic. Those men occasionally, carefully, respectfully break with the movement. Scorning today’s Republican Party is, by contrast, the core of Jeb’s political identity.
In that, Jeb is like ex-Republican Mike Bloomberg and like the failed GOP apostate Jon Huntsman: He’s deeply committed to centrist causes — federalized education, legal status for undocumented immigrants — that alienate key Republican groups; and he’s vaguely willing to go along with vestigial conservative issues that Republicans don’t care as much about, like standing up for Wall Street (Jeb was on a Lehman Brothers advisory board before that bank’s collapse, and now sits on a Barclay’s board) and opposing marriage equality, a stance he’s sought to downplay by focusing on states’ rights.
Bush was in the Bloomberg Tower for a board meeting of the personal foundation of the former New York mayor, whose aggressive campaigns for gun control make him, after President Obama, perhaps the most hated figure among pro-gun Republicans. The foundation’s focus includes two particularly bitter pills for Republicans: shutting down coal-fired power plants and campaigning globally for the kinds of new taxes on junk food whose introduction in New York City infuriated the right.
Jeb would have to defend his association with Bloomberg in a campaign, though his defenders will cry that it’s a kind of guilt by association. (Fairness isn’t the core value of political campaigns.) Fairer is to judge him on two issues to which he’s deeply committed, education and immigration.
On the former, Jeb is one of the nation’s leading champions of Common Core standards, a move toward nationalizing America’s patchwork education; his foundation recently launched an ad campaign promoting them. The move is driven by a broad consensus of labor and business groups, as well as philanthropists like Bill Gates, but it has proven intensely unpopular with a Republican base generally suspicious of federal control and specifically focused on local autonomy in education.
“I guess I’ve been out of office for a while,” Bush told Fox News this week. “So the idea that something I support that people are opposed to, it means that I have to stop supporting it if there’s not any reason based on fact to do that? I just — maybe it’s stubbornness, but I just don’t seem compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country.”
Then there is immigration. As has been true since before his brother was president, there’s an elite consensus behind “comprehensive immigration reform” that would provide legal status and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Bush is a particularly impassioned spokesman for this consensus.
“Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans, over the last 20 years,” Jeb said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference in June 2013. “Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.”
This Sunday, he went further in describing the motives of some undocumented immigrants in deeply positive terms.
“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony,” Jeb said. “It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
The problem: The only people absent from this consensus are the leaders of his own party. House Republicans have for a decade bottled up “amnesty.”
Indeed, Bush’s devout casting of the immigration debate as a matter of core human values, not a legitimate policy dispute, is exactly what doomed Rick Perry in 2012: The Texas governor told Republicans who disagreed with him on immigration, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
This isn’t the fruit of some opposition research dossier, which would dig deep into his personal and professional lives since he left the spotlight. This is an hour or two of research by our politics intern, Gideon Resnick, on the causes that are on top of the former governor’s agenda. And this is difficult to square with today’s Republican Party.
And then there’s execution. Jeb’s tortured musings about his missed opportunity in 2012 were a remarkable exercise in political indiscipline.
“This was probably my time,” Bush told CBS This Morning in June 2012. “There’s a window of opportunity, in life, and for all sorts of reasons.”
“Although I don’t know, given what I believe and how I believe it, I’m not sure I would have been successful as a candidate, either. These are different times than just six years ago, when I last ran, or even longer than that,” he said.
Jeb’s visit to New York in 2012 was a relatively rare outing to the non-Sunday show press, and as the quote suggests, he found himself making news that he didn’t intend to make, losing control of his image to the speedy, Twitter-driven political conversation before we’d finished our fresh-squeezed orange juice. Politicians are at their root in the media business — they’re communicators, distributing words, videos, images, and ideas — and it was painfully clear as he spoke that Jeb (like Bill Clinton) was a man of languorous 1990s media cycles who had little sense of the fragmented new one.
This is not to say Jeb doesn’t have assets. The Bush name is no longer toxic; indeed, his brother is now remembered fondly by most Republicans. He was a successful governor of a big key state, with a reputation for moderation, even if it’s been a while. And he can surely raise money. When I tweeted some skepticism about Jeb on Monday morning, two progressive journalists, Chris Hayes and Judd Legum, immediately responded with the conventional wisdom: Republicans “tend to go with moderates and known quantities,” as Legum said.
So that’s the best case: Mitt Romney. The worst case? Mitt with a dollop of Fred Thompson, the halfhearted victim of a halfhearted draft.