The 2016 presidential sweepstakes got off to an unusually early start this week, at least in the Republican Party. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush announced the launch of an exploratory committee for a run at the GOP nomination, a move that was not unexpected, but surprising for its timing.
It challenges the Republican Party to make a choice between its past and its future -- perhaps much sooner than it otherwise would.
On paper, Jeb Bush makes a good contender for a presidential nomination. He won two terms as governor in a key swing state for presidential elections. He retired with high levels of job approval and popularity, and translated that into successful support for other Republicans who ran for and won significant offices Bush speaks Spanish and has good relations with Hispanic voters, and his Mexico-native wife Columba would give that an even greater boost in a national campaign. At 61, he would still be a few years younger than the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
The problem for Bush is that almost everything about him, even his assets, speak to the past. While Bush won two terms for governor in Florida, the last election in which he ran was in 2002, a gap of 14 years when the primaries will begin for the nomination. His active campaign support for other Republicans mostly took place in his final term.
In the last three election cycles, Bush has barely registered on the national electorate, and likely as a deliberate choice. It’s no secret that the Bush brand took a severe beating during his brother George’s second term as President. The botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the eruption of a near civil war in Iraq derailed that term in office, much the same way that the scandals at the VA, NSA, IRS, and the rise of ISIS has made Bush 43’s successor look incompetent.
The release last week of a partisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA interrogation techniques after 9/11 put his brother’s presidency back in the spotlight, reminding people of the Bush fatigue that helped Barack Obama win in 2008.
Those aren’t the only ways in which Bush reflects the past, either. His post-gubernatorial career put him in Lehman Brothers as a private-equity adviser in mid-2007. Almost exactly a year later, Lehman Brothers collapsed in the financial-industry meltdown that triggered the Great Recession, the blame for which popularly rests on his brother’s shoulders, fairly or not. Bush also joined the board of InnoVida in the same year, which went bankrupt in 2011 amid allegations of fraud and misappropriated funds.
Mainly, though, Bush represents a political past within the Republican Party that has little relation to the party of today that he wants to lead. Bush claimed in a 2012 New York Times interview that the GOP of today would never have nominated Ronald Reagan or his father George H. W. Bush for the presidency based on the conservative grassroots and its agenda.
Reagan and his father both raised taxes, for instance, which would make them anathema to the Republicans of today. Bush forgot that his father’s notorious betrayal of his “read my lips” pledge helped to make him a one-term president among Republicans of that era, too. Complaining that the Republican Party isn’t the same as it was in 1988 is a curious way to make oneself relevant in 2016.
To some extent, Mitt Romney had the same issues in 2012, even without the burden of the Bush name. He made his fortune in private equity, the same as Jeb Bush did after his last term as governor. He had a famous political name, with his father serving as a Republican governor of Michigan, and his own single term as Massachusetts governor exactly paralleling Bush’s second term. Romney had run second to John McCain for the 2008 nomination, whose own second-place finish in 2000 had made him the next in line for the Republican nod.
The difference, though, was that the GOP didn’t have many options for nominees that reflected the post-George W. Bush era of the party. That was one of the prime drivers of the unusual anyone-but-Mitt dynamic in polling seen in late 2011, as candidates from Herman Cain to Michele Bachmann enjoyed brief moments at the top of national polls. The only two sustained challenges to Romney’s dominance in the primary campaign, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, had been political figures from the Clinton era, out of office for four and twelve years, respectively. The only practical options available to a new generation of Republicans were choices from the previous generation.
In 2016, that will no longer be the case. Most of the field will have reached their peak during the post-Bush era. Scott Walker just won a second term in Wisconsin after staving off a recall in retaliation for public-employee union reforms. Bobby Jindal won a second term without a runoff in Louisiana after his public-education and political reforms. Susana Martinez won another term after cleaning up the corruption from her predecessor.
Mike Pence, John Kasich, Nikki Haley, and even Chris Christie are all governors with second terms whose rise parallels that of the present makeup of the party. On top of those, Senator Marco Rubio has plans for the White House, and the present controversy over the change in relations with Cuba will fuel his passion and remind people that his was the first real Tea Party insurgency against the old establishment in the 2010 cycle.
It’s not that Jeb Bush would make a poor President. It’s just that he’s all about the past of the party, in the same way that Hillary Clinton is all about the Democratic Party’s past, both of the Clinton era and of the Obama era that has voters looking for real change once again. Republicans have to ask themselves whether they want to keep looking to the past, or looking to the future – and this time they have real options for choosing the latter.
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