During the primary season, it was impossible to ignore the loud lamentations from prominent GOP figures that the field of the pre-primary season was not the one for which they had hoped. And it took a while for them to learn to accept that Mitt Romney was going to be their party's 2012 standard-bearer.
There were very late calls for some savior candidate to enter the race -- such as Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. Marco Rubio or Rep. Paul Ryan. This was the party's talent -- a mix of experienced veterans and emerging stars -- and for various reasons, they all had opted to stay on the bench.
For the most part, those guys have not done much lamenting of their own. If they regret not having jumped into the race, they haven't expressed it in depth. They have all stood up to be good soldiers in the fight to have Romney elected in November, and none of them seem to want to dwell on what might have been.
That is, until this week, when another member of 2012's benchwarmer class opened up about the experience of not jumping into the race: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He had much to say about the state of the GOP and its antipathy toward his cherished policies, like immigration reform -- all of which interrupted the narrative. And Bush presented President Barack Obama with an opportunity to respond tactically, which he did today (see below).
All those guys, Jeb included, had reasons to sit this one out, though some were more obvious than others. Marco Rubio made it repeatedly clear, for example, that he was not going to abandon the Senate career he has just begun for the White House. And Paul Ryan doesn't really have any use for the Oval Office; he's projecting a considerable amount of political power from an easily defended House seat.
For the rest, we'd posit that their decision to stay out was pretty simple since 2012 has been shaping up to be a heated, unforgiving slog in the Tea Party trench and that was no place for these men, who shared something in common: a slight bend toward conciliatory politics. Mitch Daniels, for example, floated the idea of a "social truce" -- in which the most divisive subjects in right wing politics would fall by the wayside so a debate could be forged on deficits and tax reform.
And while Christie had the reputation of being a tough talker, he would commit the unpardonable sin of conciliation as well; he's not against collective bargaining, for example, and he had appointed and defended a Muslim judge.
If these benchwarmers needed evidence that they had made the right decision, they got it when they watched how Rick Perry got treated in the primary debates. Perry was the guy who everyone thought could knit up the different strains of the GOP base, all while attracting mega-donors. Problem was, Perry had convictions, many of which concerned the humane treatment of Mexican immigrants. For this sin, he was punished. And somewhere, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was probably watching.
In terms of his presidential portfolio, Jeb Bush has ample baggage, a lot of which he has obtained by dint of the fact that he shares a last name with two other former presidents. Naturally, his brother's presidency -- which isn't much held in high regard these days, even by his nominal ideological allies -- is a problem for him. But Jeb's been more or less successful in maintaining his brand as "the smarter son." The larger difficulty, of course, has to do with timing and the electorate's fatigue with family dynasties. But Jeb was facing headwinds that went far beyond the familiarity with his bloodline.
Jeb's larger problem was twofold. First, he remains deeply committed to immigration reform, at a time when the GOP base has become swollen with nativist crackpots. Second, he still feels a deep longing for the age in which his father governed, when heated debates forged compromises and the system had not been corrupted by naked brinksmanship. You can be quite sure that Jeb remembers that his father raised the debt ceiling nine times. His brother did so on seven occasions. Neither was ever faced with the prospect of the opposition destroying the global economy to score cheap political points.
So Bush decided to open up about this stuff at a breakfast with reporters, sponsored by Bloomberg View:
"Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad -- they would have a hard time if you define the Republican party -- and I don’t -- as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground," Bush said, adding that he views the hyper-partisan moment as "temporary."
"Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time -- they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan suport," he said. Reagan "would be criticized for doing the things that he did."
Bush did mention -- and later had to re-emphasize this point -- that he felt that both parties were reponsible for the "hyper-partisan moment," but the larger point about his party's lacking a place for people like him was the obvious takeaway. And he pointedly picked a fight with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and his famous pledge that now governs the GOP: "I ran for office three times ... The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people.”
Naturally, rather than ponder the truth of what Bush was revealing, his comments became the latest story of the Off-Message Surrogate (Jeb is, nominally, a Romney endorser) who was a drag on the horsey race. And there was an ample dose of speculation that Jeb was setting himself up for 2016 -- an idea that implies a lack of confidence in Romney's ability to win.
New York magazine's Jonathan Chait argued that Bush is "clearly engaged in an effort to position himself as the next leader of the Republican Party."
To understand what Bush is saying, you need to anticipate how the party might diagnose the causes of a loss in 2012, and then you can see how he is setting himself as the cure. Bush has been publicly urging Republicans to moderate their tone toward Latinos and to embrace immigration reform. Here is the one issue where Republicans, should they lose, will almost surely conclude that they need to moderate their party stance. The Latino vote is both growing in size and seems to be tilting ever more strongly toward the Democrats, a combination that will rapidly make the electoral map virtually unwinnable. Indeed, the body language of the Romney campaign suggests it already regrets the hard-line stances on immigration it adopted during the primary.
Chait made the best possible argument here, but we're not sure that the GOP is going to be allowed to act on this diagnosis. Obviously, if Romney prevails, he will be the GOP's nominee in four years (barring, of course, the possibility that Romney experiences some terrific political misadventure).
But if Romney loses, Bush has nowhere to go, either. Should Romney fail to unseat President Barack Obama in November, the howling for a True Conservative standard-bearer will grow beyond the means of measure. This howling began when the RINO of the GOP base's nightmares, Sen. John McCain, failed to win in 2008. Romney, with all his past forays into moderate policymaking, has to walk a very fine line. If he fails, it will only confirm what the Tea Party has been saying all along. And they'll remember all of Jeb Bush's heresies.
“This was probably my time," Bush said in an interview on "CBS This Morning," "There’s a window of opportunity, in life, and for all sorts of reasons.”
Jeb Bush missed his window -- if he even really had one. He remains a political figure with pedigree, accomplishments, passions and convictions. But he can't go anywhere with them. Jeb Bush is now a man without a time, without a place, and there's nothing left for him to do but join Dick Lugar in the Fraternity of Stranded Men and sing sad songs about the world they once knew.
COROLLARY TO JEB BUSH'S LAMENTATIONS
Bush's criticisms caused something of a sensation in the media and sparked infighting within the GOP. How can Team Obama Re-Elect respond tactically? You just saw how: Friday morning President Obama announced that by executive order, the deportations of young, DREAM Act-eligible immigrants will cease and they will be granted work permits instead.
It's a gutsy move on the part of the administration. The obvious criticism will come in references to the larger unemployment crisis: It will be argued that Obama is compounding the matter by introducing new competitors into the job market. These competitors are, of course, already in the job market competing, but that's not likely going to matter much to the GOP, who will label this as a naked grab for the Hispanic vote. (We're guessing it will be largely lost on everybody that Obama has already won this voter bloc.)
How to respond to this criticism? Maybe by playing clips of Jeb Bush, over and over again. Obama's action today goes right to the heart of Bush's lamentations. Bush believes in a humane approach to immigration and he sees GOP obstruction as an impediment to policymaking. Obama's move advances the former while circumventing the latter. (Obama also pulls a classic "co-opt the other side" move, effectively neutralizing Marco Rubio's ownership of the issue, leaving Rubio no way to criticize anything other than the process. "We can't wait," is how Obama will respond to that.)
Obama's move also comes at a time where Time magazine is about to send an issue to the newsstands carrying (our former Huffington Post colleague) Jose Antonio Vargas' cover story on the real lives of undocumented immigrants. Between Jeb Bush's comments at the beginning of the week and the conversation that Vargas is likely to spark at week's end, Obama had the perfect opportunity to make this move.
THE NEW PHASE OF ROMNEY SKEPTICISM
As we mentioned before, we're long past the part of the election season when the GOP establishment's general distrust of Romney can be measured in constant calls for a savior. Romney's won the primary, and he's looking more and more like a guy who will push the race to a close finish. Romney is basically out of the "proof of concept" phase of his campaign. But before he fully hits the marketplace, Republicans still have some tires to kick and some suggestions to make.
Politico's Maggie Haberman rounded up what she termed "The Republican family Feud" this week, noting that "Republicans are beginning to realize Romney can win, but acceptance of that is coming slowly." Jeb Bush figures prominently in her explication. Strategists swarm and make their case and William Kristol is waiting to see something specific from Romney, she said:
The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol suggested the intraparty critics are simply giving voice to what many in the party feel right now -- that Romney needs to work harder to build his own case.
“At some point, people do look up and say, ‘OK, I’m convinced that President Obama doesn’t quite get it … Time to look at Mitt Romney. I’m worried they may not have quite enough in place when it’s time to look at Mitt Romney where there is a coherent set of policies.”
Kristol echoed Peggy Noonan in that regard, and as we've noted previously, Romney is biding his time and withholding these specifics in order to deny Team Obama Re-Elect an avenue of criticism.
But the aspect of all this that we'd like to emphasize is that the emerging intra-party critique of Romney is a concern over how bold he's willing to be. This past Sunday, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Gov. Scott Walker took care to give this urging voice. On "Fox News Sunday," Daniels said, "The American people, I think, will rightly demand to know something more than he's not President Obama."
And Walker added to this on "Face the Nation" by invoking a specific concept. During his appearance on "Face the Nation," Walker sounded similar themes. "I don't think we win if it's just about a referendum on Barack Obama ... I think people like [Wisconsin Rep.] Paul Ryan and others hope that he goes big and bold." Later, he added, “Romney’s got a shot if the R next to his name doesn’t just stand for Republican, it stands for reformer, if he shows my state and he shows Americans that he’s got a plan to take on those reforms.”
This is an old worry, revived -- that Romney is too risk averse and vision impaired to be much more than a guy who'll tinker around the edges. Walker, having been victorious in what's been deemed to be the second-most important election of 2012, gets to put the pressure back on Romney. Of course, what Walker terms to be "reform" also includes policies that aren't too terribly popular.
This week, the Democrats can point to Ron Barber's victory in the special election for former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' old seat as one in which they prevailed by making the argument that they would fight to preserve Medicare and Social Security. So as much as Romney's semi-skeptical allies may hope Romney risks going bold, the Democrats also share those same hopes.
THE BELTWAY MEDIA DIVIDE ... AGAIN
As we've said, over and over again, one of the ways the economic crisis has been exacerbated is the failure of the Beltway media to get beyond their bubble long enough to understand that the economic downturn is not just something that affects the electoral hopes of affluent politicians who, while they may or may not get elected (or re-elected) to office, will generally not be exposed to the grinding, grueling realities of economic dislocation. Your prominent media figures see no value in having "access" to poor, ordinary Americans, so they remain background abstractions in the horse race melodrama.
Another great example came in the aftermath of twin economic speeches by Obama and Romney this week. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent pinpointed, your world-famous political media types couldn't be bothered to do much more than offer pithy pans or praise for whichever speech they hated or liked. They engaged mainly in a polite game one-upsmanship -- a battle of "I'm so effing savvy" meditations that emphasized how the "message" might shape the horse race.
Fortunately for everyone, the media on the ground in Ohio felt a particular reponsibility to serve their readers, and so there was a completely different type of journalism that got practiced. Per Sargent:
Interestingly, the local papers in Ohio covered Obama’s speech yesterday, and Romney’s rebuttal to it, as a clash of economic visions. This is how it was framed on front page after front page, according to a roundup of front pages forwarded to me by a Democrat frustrated with Washington coverage of the speech.
Now, Sargent figures that the local reporting might favor Obama. We're not as concerned by that as we are impressed how the consituents of this journalism were served. Discussing the twin speeches as a clash of different ideas, actually grappling with underlying issues, helping readers to make choices -- this is all more important than a lengthy, no-stakes chitchat session in the cable news salons. You don't need to watch the cable newsers twiddle their desiccated wit glands for another round of "who has the prettiest mouthgasm." These local papers have websites; please go visit them. They will welcome your custom.
(Let's remember, of course, that the Beltway media thought those attacks on Bain were just terrible! Ordinary human Americans disagreed.)
BERKLEY TO OBAMA: CALL ME MAYBE: Here's a story that breaks a trend: In Nevada, Rep. Shelley Berkley is running neck and neck with Republican Sen. Dean Heller in a race for his Senate seat. And unlike many Democratic senatorial candidates we could name (including some former BFFs like Sens. Claire McCaskill and John Tester), Berkley is actually hoping that Obama will come and campaign with her. Slate's Matt Taylor explained the dynamic:
Polls show Obama quite strong in the Silver State, whereas Berkley is stuck in a tie. Her strategy will be to latch on to the president at every opportunity, hoping some of the energy (and massive support from young and African American voters) behind his re-election bid rubs off on her own campaign.
Convenient! After all, Obama still has a good chance of winning Nevada, so he'll probably spend all kinds of time out there. Missouri and Montana? Yeah, not so much.
Sen. Rob Portman continues to look like the ideal partner for Romney, at least in terms of his finances. The Hill's Kevin Bogardus reported that according to the recent round of financial disclosures that were released this week, Portman's wealth has climbed, his debts have decreased, and that looks good for the second name on the ticket. Paul Ryan's also getting rich off his government job, with a personal wealth that's into "the seven figures."
THE SPECULATRON ELECTORAL MAP PROJECTION
This week, we continued our complicated process of electoral map projections, which as we said last week is a mix of careful poll study, an analysis of prevailing economic trends, druidical divination, and at least one session where we take peyote and go on a "spirit journey."
It seems clear -- to everyone, frankly -- that the five states to watch are Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia. In general, we had a better feeling about Obama's chances in Virginia this week. But while we more or less thought that Romney's good polling news out of Wisconsin was more noise than signal, we decided that we wouldn't ignore it. So this week, we throw Wisconsin back in Romney's column, and WHAT DO YOU KNOW, LOOK WHAT HAPPENED!
Admit it, if this happened, you would probably be all, "Well, that figures."
Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?