Goodbye, Hamlet. Jeb Bush is pondering no more. His decision this week to kick-start a ’16 presidential bid has already reshaped the Republican race.
Why has he moved so early, announcing the formation of a PAC to help him raise money (as if a well-connected Bushie needs help raising money), declaring on Facebook yesterday that he will “actively explore” a candidacy? Because he knows that he needs the maximum amount of time to woo, or at least defuse, the right-wing ideologues who dismiss him as a “moderate,” as a big-government enabler and as an apologist for illegal immigrants. The conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses are still 13 months away, but for Jeb, time’s a wastin’.
Secondly, he needs to shake off the cobwebs. The last time Jeb ran for elective office (as a Florida gubernatorial incumbent), the year was 2002. In cultural terms, 2002 is the Paleolithic era. There was no Twitter or YouTube or Vine or Instagram. Jeb is a serious policy guy, and he needs time to grow accustomed to a climate in which every uttered phrase is sliced and diced and tweeted and texted, typically as grist for snarky derision.
Thirdly, he wants to plant his flag with the big-money donors, to keep them from committing early to any of his likely rivals in the party’s center-right establishment. As Republican strategist Rick Wilson told CNN yesterday, Jeb’s move instantly “froze the donor sector.”
A lot of the GOP’s financiers, the ones with the potential to write big checks, have longstanding ties to the Bush family (in some cases, dating back to the dad’s initial bid in 1980). There’s an entire sub-population of well-heeled people who served in the administrations of father and brother, in all kinds of governmental capacities, and now the Bush clan can call in those IOUs. Those Republican donors weren’t likely to commit to anyone in ’15 unless or until Jeb clarified his intentions.
Now he has; it’s noteworthy that he delivered a Monday speech in South Carolina, the state where primary voters essentially clinched the nominations of his father and brother in 1988 and 2000. Having twice functioned as the Bush family’s firewall, South Carolina may be called upon again (assuming that its primary electorate hasn’t moved so far rightward that it becomes inhospitable).
But that scenario is more than a year away. For now, Jeb’s newfound clarity is bad news for many rivals.
Case in point, Chris Christie. He’s been trying to dip into Jeb’s donor pool (including the Wall Street types), but now his task just got harder. To many of those donors, Jeb is Christie without the temper, the Bridgegate cloud, and the rotten economic record. At the very least, Jeb’s early move will probably force Christie to accelerate his decision about whether to go all in. Every day of indecision is another potential day lost – while Jeb presumably snaps up donors and hires grassroots staffers for the early primary states.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker now face similar quandaries. As for Rick Perry, he probably has enough deep-pocket Texas donors to play in the race for a while, at least long enough to show off his cool new glasses and demonstrate that he can indeed string together coherent thoughts. As for Mitt Romney, who has been leading the ’16 Republican polls, he’s now compelled to either speed up his timetable, or, just as likely, decide that it’s not worth fighting Jeb for the same market niche.
Jeb’s move also puts the skids on Marco Rubio. There’s no room in the race for two guys from Florida – where the huge GOP donor base has long been wired to Jeb – especially given the fact that Jeb is Rubio’s mentor and that Jeb’s eight years of executive experience easily trumps Rubio’s three-year senatorial tenure. Also, Jeb’s big-footing of Rubio will dismay a number of conservatives who see Rubio as a reformer, whereas they see Jeb as the same old same old.
The latter view of Jeb is prevalent on the Republican right. In fact, his bold moves this week will likely energize potential ’16 rivals – Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul. Their basic argument is that Jeb would be just another wishy-washy loser, a la Mitt Romney and John McCain and Bob Dole. Conservative activist Brent Bozell, looking ahead to a ’16 election scenario, tweeted yesterday: “Another Bush versus Clinton. Political vomit.”
Elsewhere yesterday, Rand Paul bought two digital ads, implicitly tweaking Jeb for being pro-government. And the right-wing money network was ablaze yesterday; the Conservative Action Fund, a super PAC, authored this fundraising email: “If you agree that Republicans will lose again with another establishment, compromising Republican who will support expansion of our already unmanageable federal government, then I need you to sign your name to our petition to Stop Jeb Bush NOW!”
This sentiment is likely to be exacerbated by Jeb’s longstanding support for immigration reform; he’ll be pressured by the right to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, President Obama’s anti-deportation executive order – which would not be his style. And in truth, immigration is only one of his issue headaches. Plus, some conservatives are simply tired of the Bush family dynasty; in the words of Senator Tom Coburn yesterday, “I don’t think we need another Bush. Period.”
And if Jeb goes for the electability argument, it may not be easy. All the latest (albeit premature) polls show him losing to Hillary Clinton; the new McClatchy-Marist survey shows him 13 points down. And the new bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Americans aren’t stoked about a Jeb bid. Only 31 percent say they can envision supporting him for president; 57 percent say nope. And that deficit is similar among swing-voting independents (34-52). No wonder he wants to give himself maximum time.
So welcome to the newly-roiled Republican race. Soon I’ll do the Warren-roiled Democrats.
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