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Jeb?

06/15/2015 09:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

Today, Jeb Bush formally entered the race for the Republican nomination for president. I should point out, as a bit of personal trivia, that his new campaign logo ("Jeb!") has allowed me to create what I believe is the shortest headline I have ever written (in over 2,000 blog posts).

Beyond punctuation fun (in reality, the most accurate slogan would likely be a sort of "ho-hum, well I guess so" use of punctuation: "...Jeb..."), Jeb's entry into the race also brings up another bit of political trivia I have so far been too lazy to research, namely what all the state rules are for candidate names on the official ballots. This is because, in reality, there is no "Jeb Bush" running. His full legal name is John Ellis Bush, and his nickname is nothing more than his initials ("J.E.B."), meaning that even writing "JEB Bush" is a grammatical redundancy (akin to "ATM machine" or "PIN number"). So how will he appear on a ballot? John "Jeb" Bush, maybe? Again, I haven't had the time or energy to research this, but it may become more important later, since John Ellis isn't the only one in the Republican field (Piyush Jindal and Rafael Cruz also spring to mind) with possibly-problematic nicknames.

The biggest knock against John (Jeb?) Bush is, of course, the same one Hillary Clinton faces: do Americans really want only dynastic choices for president? Jeb is, of course, the brother of the previous Republican president (George W.) and the son of the one before that (George H. W.). He's even a distant relation (through Barbara) of Franklin Pierce. I suppose we should at least be thankful he isn't named "George Herbert Bush," since future schoolchildren would have such a tough time remembering them in order if that were the case. But no matter what appears on each state's ballots, the family name "Bush" will definitely appear, which is such a big problem for Jeb that he left it out of his campaign logo entirely.

Jeb, if elected, would make the Bush family the first in American history to have three members serve as president. He'd also be the first brother of a previous president. We have elected four "dynastic" pairs before, but only two father/son teams. John Adams groomed his son John Quincy for the presidency from a very early age, and while the two were both successful in winning the highest office in the land, it's also notable that both men were the only ones in the first seven American presidents who only wound up serving one term (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Jackson all got re-elected). Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was a distant cousin of Teddy Roosevelt. Jeb's brother and father were the fourth presidential dynasty, of course. One final footnote (one that Democrats have so far largely been ignoring) is that we have indeed come close to seeing brothers serve as president, when Robert F. Kennedy ran (only to be tragically struck down during the campaign). We even had a second chance with the same family when Teddy Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination in 1980. If a Kennedy from a younger generation runs in some future year, my guess is that few Democrats would have much problem with the concept.

I realize I'm spending a lot of time discussing Jeb's name and family, but even this early on in the race the dynastic issue has been an enormous one for him to deal with -- and this problem is likely only going to get worse. Even Barbara Bush famously noted (a few years back, she's retracted the sentiment since) that America might have already had enough Bushes in the White House. When your own mom says stuff like this, it's pretty hard to ignore the issue entirely, in other words.

What sometimes gets lost in all the family scrutiny, though, could turn out to be Jeb's biggest political asset: his wife. Jeb's wife Columba was born in Mexico, and both she and her husband are fluent in Spanish. Call this "identity politics" if you will, but those two facts may give Jeb the best chance for winning the general election of any Republican running. There are, of course, two other Republican candidates with Cuban roots (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio), but this doesn't automatically mean they'll do well with the Latino electorate nationwide. Many Latinos harbor some degree of resentment towards Cuban-Americans, mostly due to America's anti-Castro immigration policy. Cuban immigrants, of course, are awarded automatic legality merely by setting foot on American soil -- a privilege no other Latino immigrants enjoy. Cuban-Americans, for the most part, have concentrated in Florida and around New York City, meaning geographically they might not do much to help Republicans with their disastrously-low support among Latino voters as a whole. Columba Bush, however, might get a much warmer reception. Especially in the general election phase of the campaign.

Jeb Bush's strategy seems to be one of concentrating more on the general election than on throwing the required red meat to Republican primary voters in an effort to win their votes. He already famously commented on this strategy, saying he might have to "lose the primary to win the general." But this isn't as crazy a proposition as it initially sounds, especially when you consider that Republican primary voters in blue states are more powerful than those who live in the dyed-in-the-wool red states. Think about it -- the number of Electoral College votes from states that vote reliably Democratic is far greater than the number of Electoral College votes from solid-red states. While there isn't a one-to-one correlation between the Electoral College and the number of delegates each state sends to the Republican National Convention, the two are both proportional to population. If Jeb concentrates on winning moderate Republicans in blue states, and cedes some far-right states to others, he still could easily wind up with more delegates than all the others. Whether it'll be enough to win him the nomination is an open question, of course. We won't know the answer to it until a few dozen states actually hold their primaries and caucuses next year.

Jeb Bush initially planned to present himself as the inevitable Republican candidate. He was going to "clear the field" of other major contenders by raising a massive amount of money very early, and thus scare all the other serious candidates away from even running. That, obviously, hasn't gone exactly the way Bush planned. He is indeed raising millions of dollars, but hasn't noticeably scared anyone away from the race (except, perhaps, Mitt Romney). How big the money factor will be is also anyone's guess. Other candidates are lining up their own "deep pocket" billionaire supporters, so it doesn't look like many Republican contenders will have to drop out early in the contest.

On the issues, Bush has a few positions that are going to be hard for far-right Republican primary voters to accept. The two biggest of these are Bush's support for the Common Core educational standards and his openness to considering immigration reform (that doesn't solely consist of "self-deportation"). After all, he married a foreigner, so he knows full well what the immigration process is truly like. Bush has also been stronger on conservation than most Republicans, although this doesn't exactly mean he merits any sort of "environmentalist" label. All of these positions may be brought up by his Republican rivals in the upcoming months.

These all are weaknesses for Bush during the primaries. However, they might easily become assets for him in the general election. So far, Bush has painted himself as much more moderate than most of the Republican field, which should help him if he does manage to secure his party's nomination. Not only has Bush seemingly recycled his brother's foreign policy (by hiring most of George W.'s closest foreign policy advisors), but he also seems to be trying to recycle his brother's "compassionate conservatism," by painting a friendlier face on the Republican Party. Whether this will hurt him during the primaries remains to be seen, but it's easy to see it could help him in the general election.

Bush does have one problematic episode in his past when it comes to wooing general election voters, though. The tragic saga of Terri Schiavo happened in Florida while Jeb was governor. Jeb (as Republicans are wont to do, at times) didn't like the court ruling that the husband of Schiavo was responsible for the decision of whether to continue life support, rather than Schiavo's parents. A heart-wrenching family decision ruled on by the courts -- an event that happens every day across America -- became nothing short of a political circus, and it was largely due to the heavy-handed intervention of Governor Bush. Bush tried everything he could think of to interject what might be called "big government" into a very private and personal decision -- including getting his legislature to pass a law allowing the outcome Bush preferred. The law was declared unconstitutional, but Bush also supported the effort to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. Bush eventually lost, and the husband was allowed to withdraw life support. Politically, this is problematic for Bush because it runs so counter to not only orthodox Republican beliefs in small government, but also because he was instrumental in pushing his own moral judgment over actual legal decisions. Moderate voters and swing voters may have forgotten Jeb's role in the Terri Schiavo situation, but it's a pretty safe bet that a Bush opponent will eventually bring it up. Bush also signed Florida's "stand your ground" gun law (the first such law in the nation), which may also become fodder for campaign ads in the general election.

Even having said all of that, Jeb Bush is still one of a very few of the Republican contenders who could give the Democrats cause for concern in the general election. Most of the Republican field are currently running so far to the right that they would likely get crushed in the general election, if they managed to capture the Republican nomination. Bush has always acknowledged that he's the "establishment Republican" candidate, meaning the big money is flowing to him because the big money wants to actually win next November (as opposed to making some point about ideological purity, while going down in flames).

I am going to make one wild prediction here, and that is that Bush's primary campaign will -- depending on how things go for him -- be ultimately compared to one of two previous presidential primary candidates. If he does manage to win the Republican nomination, his performance will be likened to Mitt Romney's 2012 primary victory. Bush will always be the one all the other candidates are measuring themselves against, lurking in the background while the other candidates squabble among themselves. This was Mitt's path to victory, and it may well become Bush's too. Bush, like Mitt, may simply be the last man standing, to put it another way. The flip side of this is the way Bush's campaign will be portrayed if he loses the Republican nomination. If Bush is beat out by some up-and-comer, it's a pretty safe bet that his campaign will be compared to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. The word "inevitable" will be heavily used, and not in a good way. Bush will be seen as expecting a coronation that turned out to be not as inevitable as everyone thought.

Jeb Bush could wind up being America's next president. That's a statement that my fingers would actually refuse to type for several other Republicans, just because attempting to substitute "Donald Trump" or "Carly Fiorina" in that sentence would be so downright laughable. If he makes it through the primaries, all the disappointed factions within the Republican Party will likely very easily shift their allegiance to Bush. He's still the odds-on favorite to win his party's nomination, even if his campaign has so far gotten off to a rough start. A contest between him and Clinton would balance out the dynasty problem, and he's certainly got the money to go the distance. Whether he wins the Republican nomination or not, he'll continue to be the standard by which all other Republican candidates measure their support throughout the primary season, which is no small thing.

In conclusion, the answer to the question "Jeb?" seems to be: "Maybe -- it's certainly plausible." The exclamation point, though, seems to be pretty unrealistic, for the time being.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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