Searching for Jeb Bush supporters in the belly of the “establishment” beast

I’m beginning to feel like Pauline Kael. The late film critic and denizen of upscale Manhattan is alleged to have expressed wonderment at Richard Nixon’s re-election, since no one she knew had voted for him.

The early part of this week marked the festive season for the Republican political class here in Washington, DC. Receptions, such as the one for Tom Cotton, were held all over Capitol Hill. A good time was had by all.

Most conversations turned at some point to the 2016 presidential election. In the conversations I participated in, no one expressed enthusiasm for Jeb Bush. The typical comment was something along the lines of “I used to like him.”

Could it be that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jeb Bush is not a preferred candidate of the Republican establishment? The answer depends, of course, on one’s definition of that “establishment.”

“Republican establishment” is a vague concept, often invoked for merely rhetorical purposes. But the people I spoke with about Jeb Bush this week fit many of what I take to be reasonable criteria for establishment membership.

They were (1) residents of the Washington, DC area, (2) lawyers, (3) non-Tea Party, (4) regular contributors of reasonably large sums to Republican politicians, and (5) in most cases, former holders of fairly, if not very, important government positions in Republican administrations.

Should the lack of enthusiasm that these “establishment” types expressed for Jeb Bush cause me, Pauline Kael-like, to doubt that the Republican establishment really backs Bush?

No it should not. For there is one key criterion that I believe all of these folks fail to satisfy — extraordinary wealth. Each, I take it, is doing quite well financially, but I spoke to no billionaires.

I was not truly in belly of the establishment beast. Perhaps just in its throat.

Let’s assume that Bush enjoys strong support within the extremely wealthy Republican donor class. Under this assumption, how much does it matter what the rest of the “establishment” thinks?

To get a handle on this question, let’s think about the previous three Republican presidential nominees. George Bush was, I believe, the candidate of both the hugely wealthy donor class and most of the rest of the Republican establishment. John McCain in the run-up to 2008 should probably be viewed as the candidate of neither, at least not until late in the day.

Mitt Romney in the run-in to 2012 occupied a position that seems closer to Jeb Bush’s current one. Romney had ample support from the hugely wealthy donor class, but his support among the Washington political class was unenthusiastic. The consensus, as I recall, was that Romney was probably the best candidate in a weak field.

That’s still more enthusiasm than the groans I heard this week when Jeb Bush’s name came up. And the GOP field this time, though perhaps overrated, is stronger than it was in 2012.

None of this goes directly to the most important question. What will rank-and-file Republicans voters think of Jeb Bush when he’s on the campaign trail and defending his positions on immigration and common core during debates? When these debates begin we will truly be entering the belly of the Republican beast.