Mitt, Jeb, and the politics of vanity

     Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as they fly on his campaign plane to Miami Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as they fly on his campaign plane to Miami Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    Have you ever heard two alley cats fighting, because one strayed onto the other’s turf? Welcome to the Mitt and Jeb contest.

    As we all know, Jeb Bush has surprisingly hurled himself into ’16 exploratory mode – hiring strategists, launching a PAC, wooing monied Republican donors, unleashing his allies to stoke Bush buzz in the press. And clearly, Mitt Romney doesn’t like it one bit. Mitt may be a two-time loser, but the guy still thinks of the race as his turf, which is why, last Friday, he uncorked a primal yowl.

    We observers can talk about issues and ideologies all we want, but what’s most important to remember is that politics is a very personal business. The top players have outsized (albeit fragile) egos. They’re typically powered by their self-regard, their vanity, which is defined in the dictionary as “excessive pride in one’s qualities, abilities, achievements.” As Al Pacino has reputedly said, “Vanity is my favorite sin.”

    And woe to anyone who threatens that vanity. It’s clear, from all available evidence, that Mitt has never reconciled himself to the fact that he was decisively beaten in 2012, losing 11 of 12 swing states. He has enjoyed all the speculation that he might quest yet again; he loves being buzzworthy. Even though he seemed to have no interest whatsoever (when asked last year if he’d run in 2016, he said, “Oh, no, no no. No, no ,no, no, no. No, no no”) he figured he had the luxury of waiting well into ’15 before ruling himself in or out.

    But then Jeb showed up early this winter, poaching on Mitt’s center-right establishment turf, threatening to snap up the donors and resources that Mitt felt were his, and suddenly Mitt’s timetable was not his own anymore. Which explains what happened last Friday, in an ostensibly private sitdown with 30 former donors – ostensibly, because Mitt knew darn well that what he said would be leaked to the press. Which is what he wanted.

    He told them: “I want to be president….Everybody in here can go tell your friends that I’m considering a run.”

    Same old Mitt. Last year it was “no no no.” This year it’s “I want to be president.” Chalk it up as his newest flip-flop. But anyway, his current goal is to stop the Jeb momentum before it becomes a runaway train; to make it clear that Mitt is still in the game and has no intention to cede turf.

    Yep, this spat between the GOP’s two alleged heavyweights could get downright juicy.

    According to Mitt insiders, Mitt thinks that Jeb is too moderate for the Republican primary electorate; as Mitt money man Spencer Zwick tells Buzzfeed, “We have to find somebody who can not only get through the primary, but who knows he can do the job.” (Yowl! The implication there is that Jeb isn’t up to the job.) Another Mitt man, dishing anonymously, says: “Jeb is Common Core (the education standards loathed by the right), Jeb is (pro-)immigration, Jeb has been talking about raising taxes recently. Can you imagine Jeb trying to get through a Republican primary? Can you imagine what Ted Cruz is going to do to Jeb Bush? I mean, that’s going to be ugly.”

    Plus, the Mitt folks think that Jeb’s last name would be an electoral liability, in light of his brother’s unpopular tenure, and the belief in some quarters that a Bush “dynasty” would alienate voters. (A focus group this weekend seemed to support that belief.)

    But the Jeb camp is equally down on Mitt. According to Jeb insiders, Mitt was a demonstrably lousy candidate who doesn’t deserve a third shot. They say that his Bain Capital baggage and one-percenter image made it impossible for him to relate to the average voter. They also say that his abject pandering to the Republican right made it impossible for him to seize the general-election center (all true).

    Jeb was so repulsed by Mitt’s primary campaign conduct (Mitt said that undocumented immigrants should “self-deport”) that he refused to endorse Mitt during the ’12 Florida primary, a slap in the face that Mitt surely remembers, coupled with Jeb’s refusal to say whom he voted for: “Thank God it’s a secret ballot.”

    Indeed, Jeb has personally rebuked Mitt for pandering. In a TV interview last month, Jeb said that during the ’12 primaries, “He got off-message….He got sucked into other people’s agendas, and I think it hurt him.” Jeb has repeatedly signaled that if he does run in ’16, he won’t pander the way Mitt did.

    And the other stuff Jeb has already been doing – resigning from corporate boards, pledging to release his tax returns – is manifestly un-Mitt. Jeb is essentially saying, “Unlike the last guy we had, I’m not gonna let myself be painted as a rarefied plutocrat.”

    So is there room for both these guys, working the same GOP establishment donorworld? (Much less room for Chris Christie, who’s arguably on the cusp of being elbowed aside.) Perhaps one of them will blink, but don’t bet on it. Jeb has stirred Mitt’s competitive juices, deluding him into somehow thinking that despite his many failures (pandering, flip-flops, “47 percent”), the third time can be the charm.

    In the words of Jane Austen: “Vanity, working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.”


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