The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jeb Bush is the first major candidate to make a 2016 move. I am stunned.

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Jeb Bush, as I have said and written many times in this space, is a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma, to me. He is largely unknowable to the political class -- not solely because his last name accords him a level of political royalty that means he doesn't have to regularly deal with the likes of me -- but also because he, well, loathes the sort of "who's up, who's down" political coverage that people like me spend our lives doing.

Even with the fundamental unknowability of Jeb Bush established, I was still STUNNED -- and, yes, I was surprised enough to put it in all caps -- when I read on social media this morning that Jeb was forming a leadership PAC to look at running for president. If you had given me 1,000-to-1 odds on Jeb: a) having taken a formal step toward the race before the end of 2014, and b) being the first major candidate in either party to take that step, I would have passed.  (Side note: I am the worst gambler in history.)

In fact, I tweeted this shortly after hearing the news:

My reasoning was simple: Per the point above, Jeb hates the politics of politics. And there is nothing more political than announcing a presidential exploratory committee leadership PAC a little more than a month after a midterm election and more than a year before the first votes will be cast in the presidential process. Also, the traditional reasons for why a candidate would create this sort of PAC would be: a) need to start raising money immediately, b) have no other vehicle to pay for their travel around the country, or c) genuinely need to see whether a presidential bid is doable. He doesn't, at first glance, fit any of those categories.

So, why did he do it? Here's the official response via Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell:  "This is a natural next step -- to actively explore the possibility of a run and gauge if there would be support for one."

But, what's the real reason? I reached out to a bunch of Republicans -- some in Jeb world, some not -- looking for answers.  Allies of Jeb were non-responsive, almost certainly wary of getting into a process discussion about why he did what he did.  Others, thankfully, were more forthcoming.

"I kind of think they felt like they needed to get this out there because of some of the news over the last 10 days," said one senior Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the potential 2016 candidates.  Bush has faced considerably scrutiny of late -- largely due to a terrific story by Fix friend Josh Green in Bloomberg Businessweek detailing the former Florida governor's complex financial holdings and raising the question of whether they made him vulnerable to the same "rich guy who doesn't care about regular people" attacks that fell 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Romney himself is apparently concerned about how Bush's finances could hamstring his candidacy, according to reporting by Politico's Ben White and Maggie Haberman.  The duo wrote last week of Romney:

He has assessed various people’s strengths and weaknesses dispassionately, wearing what one ally called his “consultant cap” to measure the field. He has said, among other things, that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, would run into problems because of his business dealings, his work with the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Barclays, and his private equity investments.

The thinking in Bush world, according to this strategist, was that the best way to combat these series of negative stories was to make a semi-definitive declaration of intent -- changing the storyline, at least for the moment.   "This ends the charade of process stories," added another senior GOP operative.

There is also the calculation that if Bush is going to get scrutiny from the media as though he's an announced candidate, he should also get the benefits of being a close-to-announced candidate. At least one prominent Republican consultant disagreed with that assessment, however. "Anybody that was going to say anything or write anything can now ask them of a presidential candidate," said the source. "There is no pretense of a shield of immunity because you are not in the race."

Aside from changing the narrative, another argument I heard in my conversations was that Bush hasn't actively campaigned in a very long time and has shown signs in the past year or two -- see the release of his book in 2013 -- that he needs some work.  "The guy is rusty," said one Republican political consultant not working for any of the 2016ers.  "He hasn't done this is a while.  He will now have more of a preseason; after a flurry of attention, he will be off Broadway."

The most surprising reason I heard for the early Jeb announcement? Money.

Yes, I noted above that it's hard to imagine that someone whose brother and father served as president would have any trouble raising money from Republican donors. And yet, several people I talked to suggested that with a 2016 primary price tag, likely somewhere between $150 million and $200 million, even a Bush has to start raising money sooner rather than later.  "It allows the organization of the donor community," noted one Republican. "The Bush network grinds into gear and gets big commitments." (An interesting side point worth considering: Does the "Bush network" exist in anything close to its 2004 form? "Most of these people haven't raised money in a long time," said one unaligned consultant.)

Despite all of these explanations, most of the people I talked to today were as surprised as I was about Jeb's move -- and largely divided about whether the pros of such a move outweighed the cons.  Regardless, Bush is in it now. Let's see how he does.