Anyone But Jeb Bush? Pretty Much

Jeb Bush more or less announced his presidential candidacy today, and the reaction from conservatives was predictably negative. On Twitter, someone pointed out: Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush, Bush, McCain, Romney…Bush? I agree with Glenn Reynolds’ assessment:

Jeb’s a nice guy, and would certainly be a better President than Obama — but, then, my cat would be a better President than Obama, and I don’t own a cat.

I don’t want any more Bushes or Clintons. It’s embarrassing to see this kind of dynasticism in Amerca.

I was ahead of the curve on this one. In October, I wrote:

I admire Jeb Bush: he was an excellent governor, and he is a good man who has thought seriously about many of the issues, especially the “softer” issues, that confront us. But the last thing the Republican Party needs in 2016 is another Bush heading the ticket. Jeb’s mother Barbara was right about that.

Frankly, the thought of a Clinton-Bush matchup in 2016 is appalling. The conservative base will be fired up after eight years of the Obama disaster, but the one thing that might cause large numbers of conservatives to lay down their arms is Clinton vs. Bush. Hillary Clinton is, not to put too fine a point on it, a grating, unlikable, elderly lady. She can be had by someone younger: a fresh face, a new voice, someone who changes the dynamic. Pretty much anyone but a Bush, in other words.

Conservatives sometimes complain that the “establishment” foists moderate candidates on them, but I think this is wrong. In the first place, the establishment is almost monolithically Democratic, not Republican. There are some Republicans with money, but in political terms they are insurgents, not establishmentarians. Second, where was the foisting? In 2008, John McCain carried 31 states via primaries and caucuses; the runner-up, Mitt Romney, won 11. In 2012, Romney carried 37 states and more than doubled the vote total of the second-place contender, Rick Santorum. To the extent that Republicans have nominated moderates in recent years, it is because the rank and file voted for them.

In my opinion, what we have lacked in the last two election cycles is a strong conservative champion. In 2008, the next finishers after McCain and Romney were Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Huckabee is a very talented politician, but his social conservatism was not matched in any other area. On economic issues, he was barely a conservative at all.

In 2012, Santorum had his strengths–he did a better job of explaining the relationship between the social issues and economic and budgetary problems than anyone–but his appeal was pretty much limited to a social conservative niche. He had time on his hands to campaign, having lost his bid for re-election to the Senate, so there was no reason to see him as an electoral powerhouse. After Santorum were Newt Gingrich, a creative guy who was 15 years past his political peak and whose ex-wife was going around campaigning against him, and–once again–Ron Paul.

Polling data suggest that there are more conservatives in the U.S. than there are Republicans. There certainly are plenty of conservatives to put a Republican presidential candidate over the top. But they need a strong candidate to rally behind. This cycle, I think there are a number of Republicans who could fit that description–Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio (my current favorite), maybe Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal or John Kasich, maybe Chris Christie if he can define himself as a conservative. There are others who could jump into the race, both plausible candidates (John Thune) and less plausible (Ben Carson).

In fact, the best thing Jeb Bush could have going for him is that there are so many good conservative candidates of various stripes. If they split the conservative vote five or six ways, he could emerge as the early front-runner, dominate fund-raising and cement the nomination in a process that has been shortened for 2016. Most conservatives probably will want to reserve judgment, observe the candidates in action and see how they perform before picking a favorite. That is certainly my preference. But in 2016, time may be a luxury we can’t afford, and conservatives may have to coalesce early behind an alternative to Bush and perhaps, if he enters the race and runs as a moderate, Chris Christie.

Could the GOP primary picture get even more scrambled? Yes: the rumors about Mitt Romney taking another run at the nomination could be true.

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