After a bout of Jeb Bush 2016 speculation a few months ago, chatter has died down — intentionally so, I am led to believe. Bush’s team knows full well that the higher your profile and the more definitive your decision to run seems, the more fire you will draw. (Just ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.) But now Bush’s supporters are reportedly telling donors to keep their powder dry. Even more intriguing, “Mr. Bush is also planning to attend fundraisers for Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner on Sept. 18 in Chicago and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Coral Gables on Sept. 19. He has already helped raise money for a number of GOP candidates, many of them in states crucial to winning the 2016 nomination. They have included Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.”
If he does decide to run, Christie may find a dearth of big-money donors. Bush is better known, is more popular with this group and doesn’t have the bridge scandal hanging over his head. I don’t see how Christie, who has not rolled out a 2016 agenda or impressed many with policy prowess (although he did go to Mexico for the first time), remains viable if Bush runs.
Likewise, a Bush run makes Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) less likely to take the plunge. He wasn’t sold on running to begin with, and the loss of potential donors and a popular competitor who shares his reform agenda may convince Ryan (if he hadn’t been already) that he doesn’t need to run. And with Ryan, it really is about the ideas and policy. If another messenger comes along ready, willing and funded, he may very well be content to be in essence the policy shop for the campaign. (He is already expected to begin rolling out legislative initiatives from his Ways and Means chairmanship in 2015.)
And finally, a Bush run makes it less likely that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will run, or run successfully. Rubio may not want to challenge his mentor and, like Christie, could well find the establishment money scarce after the Bush money operation revs up. Rubio was already having problems, getting hit from the right on immigration and from the mainstreamers for the government shutdown. His gravitas problem becomes stark if he is standing next to Bush. And like Ryan, he is so young that he has decades ahead in which he could make a presidential run.
It is therefore possible that if Bush takes the plunge, he may clear out a number of so-called establishment candidates. Like Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, he would then benefit from a divided field on the right.
A Jeb Bush presidential campaign has become more feasible as President Obama’s foreign policy has collapsed and as Hillary Clinton becomes the default nominee for the Democrats. Suddenly a grown-up who knows his way around the White House, has traveled overseas and has deep connections to South and Central America becomes more appealing to a lot of voters. His brother’s reputation has rebounded substantially, and the Bush name need not be toxic, as was once thought. In any event, like Clinton, Jeb Bush can argue that all candidates deserve to be judged on their own merits and not on their family’s. The “dynasty” problem obviously becomes less of an issue running against Clinton. The GOP, to be sure, with Jeb Bush as the standard bearer, would not have such a vivid contrast between old and new, but Bush is entirely capable of fighting the election on the basis of new conservative reform vs. the old liberal welfare state and foreign policy untrustworthiness.
Bush will face great skepticism on the right, but so did Romney. He will need to present a compelling agenda, but so does every candidate. The question remains, as it has since the beginning of the Bush boomlet, whether he has the fire in the belly for a run. If so, he instantly becomes a formidable candidate.