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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 18: Jeb Bush’s Dilemma

Jeb Bush earned some extensive chatter from the political world by suddenly expressing an active interest in the race after months and years of Hamlet-like behavior, while also forming a leadership PAC to support allies and show the flag. He does have some assets along with the much-noted problem of recent friction with conservatives over his positions favoring Common Core education standards and some sort of legalization of undocumented immigrants. But at TPMCafe, I isolated what seems to be the problem he simply cannot solve:

Bush’s central problem is that in outside donor circles, he simply isn’t beloved in the way a fresher and more viscerally ideological candidate could be, and thus he needs a very strong “electability” argument to pull conservatives, however reluctantly, into his camp. And that’s the rub: despite his name ID, his resume, and his “centrist” positions on at least some subjects, this on-paper “winner” is not very popular with the general electorate. In two solid years of being pitted against Hillary Clinton in polls, Bush has not led a single one, and trails her in the latest RealClearPolitics average by over 9%. That’s a poorer margin than for Ryan (6%), Christie (7%), and Huckabee (8%), and about the same as for Paul. Ted Cruz is the only regularly polled putative GOP candidate running significantly worse than Bush against HRC (an RCP average gap of 13%), and that’s largely because he’s far less well-known.
Not having held a public office since 2006, it’s unclear what Bush can do to make himself significantly more popular with the general public in hopes of becoming seductively attractive to Republican caucus and primary voters who have a lot of other options. His signature issue used to be education, but his once-novel experiments with private school vouchers and teacher tenure “reform” are now old-hat and universally supported by Republicans. Moreover, education is a hot-button issue mostly to people angry about reform initiatives like Common Core. And there should be red flashing signs in Jeb’s camp about his business record, ranging from his involvement with Lehman Brothers and Barclays to his more recent dealings with Chinese investors. If Republicans want another Mitt Romney, the original is still available.
Can Jeb Bush buy his way to the standing he needs? His support from donors will obviously help if he runs, but as Rick Perry showed in 2012, the money can go pretty fast if it’s not propped up by positive events. And at the moment, the main way Bush can attract attention is by continuing to scold his once-fellow-conservatives for insufficient realism. Perhaps Bush will be able to elbow Christie and Rubio and even Romney out of the way and slip-slide through a demolition derby of conservatives the way John McCain did in 2008. But he could be on a trajectory to become this cycle’s Jon Huntsman, with a lot more money to run through. And just maybe he’s jollying his father and brother and various family retainers, and will not run when push comes to shove, leaving the dynasty in the hands of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, his son, who has had the good political sense to oppose Common Core.

Don’t bet the farm on Jeb Bush.

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