Jeb Bush's Pros and Cons

If Jeb does run, he may face Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Now, a "Clinton vs. Bush" contest doesn't exactly thrill many people who are looking for perhaps a little more variety (and a little less dynasty) in our presidential choices, but it is indeed worth contemplating at this point, at least if Jeb is serious about running.
12/15/2014 08:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The 2014 midterms are over. The lame-duck Congress is wrapping things up and preparing to flee Washington. The holiday season is in the air. So, naturally, it is now time to turn our attention to the 2016 presidential contest.

I know, I know: It's still way too early for this stuff. We have over a year before the first primary will be held, and then almost another full year until the general election happens. Nonetheless, over the weekend a flurry of speculation broke out over Jeb Bush's possible candidacy. Bush made some moves that strongly indicate that he may indeed become the third Bush to make a run for the presidency.

If Jeb does run, he may face Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Now, a "Clinton vs. Bush" contest doesn't exactly thrill many people who are looking for perhaps a little more variety (and a little less dynasty) in our presidential choices, but it is indeed worth contemplating at this point, at least if Jeb is serious about running.

Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are both somewhat tame and moderate politicians, driven more by political consultants and polls than by any burning personal ideology. Both are familiar with the concept of "triangulation" in politics. To put this another way, we might wind up with a 2016 race of "the bland leading the bland." Still, it's hard to see either one of them not instantly becoming the frontrunner in their respective party's field on name recognition alone. How good a candidate will either prove to be, though? It's worth taking a look at the pros and cons each will bring to the race, in an early look at what their campaigns will likely have to overcome. Today I'll be weighing Bush's pros and cons, and later in the week I'll do the same for Hillary Clinton.

Jeb Bush's Positives

The biggest positive Bush will bring to the table is a whole lot of money. The big Republican donors have made no secret of the fact that they're looking for a reasonable candidate and not a firebrand. The "electability factor" drives much of this money. (Who wants to bet millions on a losing candidate?) Bush could lock up the biggest donors fairly early and squeeze out any other moderates (from the establishment wing of the Republican Party) from even deciding to run.

The biggest positive Bush has as a Republican candidate is his family. No, not his father or his brother or even his mother but his more immediate family. Bush's voice within the Republican Party on the subject of immigration is pretty unique, because he married a Mexican woman (the mother of his three children) and speaks fluent Spanish. That right there could earn him millions of votes that other Republicans could never even hope to get. There are two prominent Latino Republicans who will also likely run, but both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz aren't exactly seen as prominent voices for the Latino community. Both Rubio and Cruz are of Cuban descent, which (because of Cubans' unique and favored immigration status) doesn't carry a whole lot of weight with Latinos outside Florida. This is before even touching upon their political positions. Bush actually lives up to his father's concept of "compassionate conservatism" when it comes to immigration (he married a foreigner who became an immigrant, so this is no surprise), while Cruz and Rubio are fighting to stake out the harshest possible position on the issue. Rubio tried being somewhat reasonable on immigration in the Senate, but when he heard the outcry from the base, he quickly denounced his own immigration bill and decided to take a more absolutist position. To put it another way, Cruz and Rubio aren't going to manage much in the way of Latino outreach in 2016, but Jeb Bush certainly could.

Bush presents himself as more of a "sunny optimist" than many Republicans these days. While the memory of Ronald Reagan has reached epic proportions among today's Republican Party, what most of them ignore in their sanctification of Reagan is how cheerful he always appeared. It's pretty hard to see many of the other possible 2016 Republican candidates as "cheerful" (with the possible exception of Mike Huckabee, who can indeed be cheerful when he tries). Bush might be able to offer voters a much more positive version of conservatism than other possible Republican candidates, most of whom appear downright angry, to one degree or another.

The final big positive in Jeb's column is where he hails from. Jeb was the governor of Florida, a state that will be absolutely crucial to any Republican's chance of winning the general election. Barack Obama won Florida twice and would have won the presidency even if Florida had gone Republican. On the Republican side, however, it is almost impossible to reasonably put together 270 votes in the Electoral College without Florida's 29 electors. Republicans may have more than one make-or-break state in 2016, but Florida will likely be the biggest. Bush would have a clear and obvious advantage in the Sunshine State, one only Marco Rubio could also possibly claim. Indeed, this may be Jeb's most convincing selling point to Republican voters at large.

Jeb Bush's Negatives

Bush is already aware of the tightrope he's going to have to attempt to walk if he seeks the Republican nomination. He was recently quoted saying that a winning Republican candidate would have to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general election." To some this seemed ridiculous (because how can a candidate even make it to the general if he loses all the primaries?). Many in the media reported it as Bush saying a candidate would "need" to lose the primaries, but what he accurately said was that a candidate would have to be willing to lose a primary to win the general election. That's a nuance that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Republican candidates, to paraphrase Jeb, have to be willing to take stances that not every primary base will agree with, rather than pandering to the most rabid primary voters everywhere. To use another political metaphor, Bush is saying he won't be tacking too far to the right in the primaries, so that he won't have to tack too far back to the center in the general.

What he's really doing is preparing the ground for the expected backlash against his compassionate position on immigration. He cannot suddenly renounce his wife, after all. He cannot even attempt to outflank people like Ted Cruz on the right on immigration. Because he knows this, he's most likely softening people up now for how he's going to run. And immigration is not even the only issue where Bush has a stance that is not going to be appreciated by the far right. He's said nice things about undocumented immigrants, and he's also a fan of federal testing standards for education, for example, which is not very popular among the Republican base. So he's going to have to stand on a debate stage at some point and defend several positions against attacks from pretty much all the other Republican candidates. He'll be running on his authenticity instead: "This is my position, I think it's right, and I'm not going to change it to pander to the voters of Iowa (or any other state)." But if he does lose primary after primary as a result of these stances' unpopularity with the base, then he'll never make it to the general election.

Jeb faces a further problem with the base, because whether he uses the word or not, a large part of his candidacy is going to be based upon his electability. In early polling he is the only Republican -- out of a very wide field -- who would have any real chance against Hillary Clinton in the general election. This could always change, but it will be Bush's strongest argument: "Nominate me and have a chance at the Oval Office, or nominate some purist who will lose spectacularly." The only problem with this argument is its history within the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was supposed to be the electable one, and, to a certain degree, the same charge could be made against John McCain. The base is fed up with what they perceive as candidates who are insufficiently conservative, because they've been burned by that argument at least twice before. (Some even go back as far as Bob Dole on that list). Primary voters may be more inclined to elect a fire-breathing candidate this time around, even if he goes down in a Goldwateresque defeat in the general election. Maybe not, though; the tea party's rage seems to have died down somewhat, so it's impossible to tell at this point.

One minor negative for Bush is that he's been out of politics for quite a while. He hasn't been a candidate since 2002, and the Republican Party (especially the Republican Party outside Florida) has shifted considerably rightward since then. It remains to be seen whether he'll be rusty as a candidate, but he'll likely have enough money to see him through any early stumbles, so this probably won't be an issue by the time the primary season really heats up.

Jeb's biggest negative, however, is something it would be impossible for him to change: his last name. The country doesn't exactly have fond memories of either his father's presidency or his brother's. I seriously doubt you'd see George W. Bush stumping for his brother out on the hustings, to put this another way. Call it "Bush fatigue." Throughout the whole election many will be asking, "Isn't there another family out there worth electing?" But, like I said, there's nothing Jeb can do about this factor. He might already have to legally change his name to appear on the ballot as "Jeb Bush" (his full name is actually John Ellis Bush; "Jeb" is a nickname taken from his initials, not his first name), but I can't really see him changing his last name at the same time.

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