03/29/2013 08:44 am ET Updated May 29, 2013

Is the Age of Bush Over? Jeb Needs to Step Up His Game If He Is Going to Take Back the GOP

The Supreme Court arguments regarding California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act have been a remarkable moment for our society to recognize the degree of movement in social attitudes on a once highly contentious issue. In a manner unimaginable just a decade ago, leading Republicans have spoken out in support of gay marriage.

Two of the protagonists of the culture wars of the 1990s, Bill Clinton and former RNC Chair and W. aid Ken Mehlman, have each expressed their regret for their past actions, Clinton for signing DOMA and Mehlman for participating in gay baiting political tactics. Both framed their prior actions as the price of pursuit of victory over principle.

Jeb Bush, an erstwhile 2016 contender, is struggling to locate himself on the principle vs. politics scale. Clearly rusty after a layoff of almost a decade since his last campaign, he has re-emerged into a Republican Party that has lost its bearings. Jeb's father, George H. W. Bush, grew up in a New England Republican political family, and represented a GOP that is almost unrecognizable today. Poppy signed on to the Revolution, but was never a true believer, and was ultimately dispatched to an early retirement by the supply-siders and the Reaganites. By the time Jeb's brother W. seized the torch, the GOP was the domain of the self-styled "values" voters, whose visceral clinging to their religion and guns created a dominant political force. Jeb seems to want to be his Dad, a prudent, cautious Republican of the old school, but the Republican landscape is no longer welcoming of his father's softer demeanor. Jeb needs an edge, but it is not coming easily.

A few weeks after stumbling over the immigration issue, changing his stance several times within a day or two, Jeb Bush apparently decided to hunker down on the issue of gay marriage, declining to join the parade of Republican heavyweights signing up in support of a more tolerant nation. Speaking this week about gay marriage and gun control, a visibly chastened Bush retreated from taking any positions on anything, providing instead a magnificent formulation of political non-speak:

The effort ought to be to find consensus, that there should be rewards politically for a consensus-oriented approach that solves problems. On the other hand, passing legislation that doesn't solve the problem isn't going to solve any problems, either. I'd be wary of simple solutions to complex problems. This is a complicated issue.

Some issues are complicated. But often they only become complicated only when politicians are forced to choose between their own sensibilities and fears of political consequences. If Jeb wanted to seize the incrementalist center, and claim some kind of Yoda-like mantle of wisdom, he might have referred back to Justice Ginsburg's reflection on Roe v. Wade having been decided too soon, and the importance of letting a national consensus grow prior to the Court asserting itself. Not exactly a Lincolnesque strategy, but it would beat the vacuous response he came up with.

In the wake of the Conservative Political Action Committee convention, it has become conventional wisdom that the Republican Party now rests in the hands of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Rand Paul jumped to the fore on the issue of domestic use of drones, taking a stance that would have ignited the political left were an earlier Bush still in the White House. Republican fascination with Rubio seems somewhat overdone, as he has yet to deliver a notable speech or show particular leadership, beyond the issue of immigration where his leadership remains to be validated by visible evidence of followership across the party he purports to lead.

The depth of the animus that divides Ds and Rs has been remarkable in the effective censoring of cross-party alliances, even where there should be strong affinities, whether of politics or principle. Ron Wyden's support of Paul's filibuster should have found broad support on the left, as nothing could offer a more daunting foreshadowing of an encroaching national security state than the image of drones policing first our borders and then our cities. The president's casual response "Not yet" to Senator Paul's question about whether he had authorized the domestic use of drones may have sounded like the tongue-in-cheek remark of a man enjoying baiting an adversary, but seemed misplaced given the gravity of the topic.

But if Paul and Rubio were the stars of the party, Sarah Palin's reemergence as the belle of the CPAC ball was a stark reminder of how far the GOP has fallen. This was once the party of laws and order. Candidates waited their turn and did not show up the central command. The battles between the right and the farther right -- Goldwater and Rockefeller, Reagan and Ford -- were largely resolved out of the public eye. By contrast, today's Republican Party is in uncharted waters, and for the first time in decades, there is no simple template. For the first time since Ronald Reagan trounced Poppy Bush, the shibboleths that emerged in Reagan's name are withering.

Jeb Bush is supposed to be the grownup. He is governor with gravitas and substance in a party now deeply in need of both. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul make for good copy, but neither are going to be the GOP candidate three years from now. The Republican Party bench is in disarray, and Jeb may well be the Party's most viable candidate.

After a bad first month, Jeb Bush may decide that he does not have the fire anymore, that he is not willing to take on the peasants with pitchforks that undid his father or bother with the lunacy of Sarah Palin's act or entourage. But he has a real opportunity. For the first time in decades -- perhaps since his father denounced Ronald Reagan's voodoo economics in the 1980 primaries -- the old Republican playbook has run its course. In the chaos of today's GOP, Jeb Bush can actually write his own script, he can say what he really believes. But so far, that possibility has not sunk in. Because so far, he has not said anything at all.