It’s a path that starts by consolidating the establishment wing of the party in the invisible primary. It ends by winning a protracted fight against an underfunded conservative opponent who can’t break through in the delegate-rich blue states that are often needed to win the party’s nomination, even though the party struggles to win them in presidential elections.
Cohn is absolutely right. A look back at recent contested Republican presidential primary fights suggests that the race typically boils down to one candidate from the establishment lane and one from the tea party/activist conservative lane -- with the establishment candidate winning. As he notes, in 2012 Mitt Romney was the clear establishment favorite -- especially after Chris Christie said "no," again, in the fall of 2011 -- and wound up beating back a challenge from surprise conservative lane pick Rick Santorum. Four years earlier, John McCain beat out Romney for the establishment mantle and then bested conservative lane pick Mike Huckabee for the nomination. In 2000, the establishment pick also was a sort-of conservative pick (George W. Bush) and he wound up beating McCain, running as sort of the un-candidate, for the nomination.
(Worth noting: The Republican Party of 2000 is not the Republican Party of today or anything close to it. Back then, the tea party didn't exist and social conservatives were far more powerful. Also, there was a path to a tonal moderate to win the nomination. That is no longer possible -- see Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Much more on that below.)
One thing that I think Cohn undervalues in his calculations regarding Jeb Bush's chances are a) how much the other candidates running matter to the final outcome and b) how much the GOP has changed even from four years ago.
On the first point, I think that the potential 2016 field is significantly stronger -- in both the establishment and conservative lanes -- than it was in 2008 or 2012. Ted Cruz, say what you will about him, is a gifted speaker and debater who has proven over the past two years an ability to build a national following. The establishment lane is chock full (or could be chock full) of talented and well-known pols: Bush, Christie, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, to name four. Neither the 2008 mor 2012 field had as much talent.
You might notice I left Rand Paul off that list. That was on purpose. Because the senator from Kentucky is the bridge between points number one and two. He is a candidate who is unlike anyone in either the 2008 or 2012 field in that he is a sort of "cause" candidate -- people believe deeply in his libertarian message the same way they did for his father in each of the past two races -- and also a plausible winner in that he probably can raise the more than $100 million necessary for the primary and doesn't scare the hell out of the establishment the way his dad did or Cruz does.
Which gets me to how the Republican Party has changed -- and why simply casting the race as the establishment vs. the tea party may be an oversimplification. Yes, the "establishment" lane still very much exists -- composed, primarily, of the professional political class, major donors -- especially on the East Coast -- and fiscal conservatives. But assuming that the "other" lane is the tea party misses some of the nuance that exists within the party. Cruz is a tea partyer, for sure, and one who unites the fiscal and social ends of that movement. But, while Paul is identified at times with the tea party (and has embraced such labeling when it's politically beneficial) he actually is far more closely aligned with the growing libertarian strain within the GOP.
The GOP is less bifurcated -- establishment/social conservatives, establishment/tea party -- than in any of the past four presidential campaigns, largely because of the rise of these libertarians but also the result, in some measure, to the waning influence of the tea party. (Its influence may wax again but for the moment, not.)
That reality creates what I think is the most likely scenario in the fight for the GOP nomination in 2016: It won't be a battle between, say, Bush and whoever the tea party puts up. It is more likely to be a battle between whoever the establishment nominates and Paul, whose hybrid appeal to libertarians, tea partyers and a slice of the fiscally conservative establishment is unlike anyone else in the potential field. And, unlike past conservative lane choices who have never had the fundraising or organization heft to challenge the establishment pick, Paul just might. His activity in the 2016 race suggests he is not Huckabee or Santorum on those fronts.
That's not to say Paul will be the nominee. But it is to say that the idea that Bush can unite the establishment and, as a result, be the odds-on favorite as the nominee is based on an outdated read of the current state of the party.