Jeb Bush might or might not run for president in 2016. If he runs, he might or might not emerge as a winner. But his formulation for how to think about waging a successful presidential campaign suggests he already is ahead of some of his potential competitors — in both parties.
Bush, the former governor of Florida, spoke last week at a Wall Street Journal conference in Washington. In an interview conducted by Jerry Seib, the Journal’s Washington bureau chief, he said that anyone running for president should be prepared “to lose the primary to win the general [election] without violating your principles.”
What Bush said is the opposite of the oft-stated idea that presidential candidates run to the left or the right to win their party’s presidential nomination and then scamper back to the center as best they can for the general election. That prescription, while sometimes successful, can easily contribute to cynicism among the voters, who watch and wonder whether their politicians have any principles beyond the desire to win at any cost.
Bush offered a different concept, one grounded less to the machinations of typical political campaigns and more dependent on the power of ideas and the confidence to test them in the marketplace. At its core, what Bush was saying is that the best candidates are those who know what they believe, are not afraid to take risks to articulate those convictions and, in some measure, use their campaign to help redefine their party rather than becoming a prisoner of party orthodoxies and constituencies.
Bush said last week that he would decide “in short order” whether to run. Advisers say there is nothing imminent, that his timetable is the same as it has been all year: get through the midterms and then sit down with his family before making a final decision.
Bush’s strengths and weaknesses as a possible presidential candidate are well known. He governed effectively and conservatively in a populous and diverse state for eight years. But he’s been out of office since early 2007, in which time both his party and the nature of political campaigns have changed. He’s the son and brother of former presidents, so he’s seen the inside of two different presidencies. But the Bush name remains a mixed blessing with the general electorate.
Bush’s major liabilities in the nomination battle would be his positions on immigration reform and education reform. He is at odds with many conservatives because he supports a path to some kind of legal status for millions of illegal immigrants and because of his advocacy for Common Core educational standards.
Bush sounded as if he knows what he would talk about if he ran — from education reform and entitlement reform to an overhaul of the tax system and a paring of the regulatory apparatus to what he called an economically driven reform of immigration laws — and what he thinks about them.
Being prepared to lose the nomination in order to win the general election does not necessarily mean an in-your-face campaign designed to poke his conservative critics unnecessarily. Instead, presumably it means a willingness to stand his ground on issues where he believes he is closer to the views of the broader electorate without, as he put it, violating his conservative principles.
Bush for a long time has been prodding his party to put its stamp on the future rather than looking to its past. He was an early debunker of the wave of Reagan nostalgia that took hold during the 2008 presidential primaries — the notion that a return to Reaganism was the path to success in presidential elections. Bush argued that the party needed to adapt its conservative principles to a new time and a new America.
Republicans just won the majority in the House and Senate; they control 31 governorships and have unified control in almost two dozen states. What they lack is the White House. As Bush said last week, Republicans are past the point of having to make a point. They need to show they know how to govern. Some governors are doing that. But this has been particularly challenging in Washington for a party that has come to power as the anti-Washington party.
Bush’s comments provide a contrast to those of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is going through the same decision-making process as he is. He has been more open about his considerations and is seemingly farther along in knowing what he would make his campaign about and how he would conduct it, should he decide to run.
At a time of political dysfunction and deep public dissatisfaction, neither party needs to offer a nominee wedded to ideological orthodoxy. Being respectful of a party’s constituencies and coalition is not the same as being beholden to them. Nomination battles, however, tend to require candidates to adhere even more closely to those orthodoxies. Clinton is buffeted by the debate within her party about just how populist the Democrats should be in 2016. If she runs, she owes voters an explanation of her true convictions.
In the establishment wing of the Republican Party, there is enthusiasm for a Bush candidacy; in more conservative precincts, there will be opposition. Some Republicans believe that if Bush were to announce his candidacy, he would become the front-runner for the nomination by dint of his name, his experience and his presumed capacity to raise money.
Surveys of Republicans suggest obstacles. Bush is hardly a dominant figure in those measures. The undeclared field of candidates is so fractured right now that no one among the prospective candidates, save for Mitt Romney, comes close to getting even a fifth of the GOP support.
In the exit polls from last month’s midterms, voters were asked to rate various prospective presidential candidates. Bush did worse than Clinton but better than any of the other Republicans tested — Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Rand Paul. Still, just 49 percent of Republicans who voted last month (and just 25 percent of independents) said they thought he would make a good president. At least he had more positives than negatives from members of his own party — something the other three tested could not say.
Many months ago, Bush said he would consider running if he could do it “joyfully.” What he said last week was slightly different, that what would be important would be to find a way to “lift people’s spirits and not get sucked into the vortex,” according to a Journal account of his appearance.
It’s difficult to believe that, in the often toxic environment of today’s politics, anyone could run for president joyfully. Avoiding the vortex of negativity is a more realistic goal. Bush has clearly been thinking about all this as he nears a decision. He sounds almost ready for the next step. But will he take it?