The last time Jeb Bush ran for office, it was 13 years ago. Barack Obama was serving in the Illinois state Senate. No one had heard of Obamacare or the tea party, and wouldn’t for years. It was before the invasion of Iraq, before Hurricane Katrina, before the financial meltdown. We had just invaded Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq. It was a political epoch ago.
If timing is everything in politics, Bush has, among other things, a timing problem. He had an exemplary record as a conservative reformer in Florida almost a decade ago, but the achievements and fights of the other Republican governors running for president have been the stuff of contemporary headlines. He is a gifted politician, but his father and brother preceded him to the presidency, giving his campaign an inevitable dynastic air as the vehicle of “the third Bush.”
The phrase “shock and awe,” associated with the Bush campaign at its inception, is now exclusively used to discuss the gap between its expectations and performance. The fundraising, even if it falls short of the widely cited $100 million mark, has been prodigious. But there has been a stark enthusiasm gap between donors and actual voters. If the Republican nomination were going to be fought out exclusively in fundraisers held in corporate conference rooms and fancy homes, Bush would be winning in a rout. Instead, he is clustered with a few other top contenders, a front-runner in name only.
His freshly unveiled “Jeb!” logo might be more appropriately punctuated with a question mark, about whether he can excite Republican voters in a field that is as large and talented as any in memory.
The Mitt Romney path to the nomination is not available to him. Bush can’t show up with a fundraising advantage, a professional operation and a resume, then expect to inexorably grind down all the other candidates. Romney could do that in 2012 against an unprepared Rick Perry, an undisciplined Newt Gingrich and an unfunded Rick Santorum. Bush is running against a field that has about a half-dozen candidates who would have been in the top tier last time around.
Romney won the nomination despite his Massachusetts health-care plan that was anathema to much of the party.
It’s one thing to have a few heterodoxies, though; it’s another to be defined by them. What most conservatives heard from Bush during the Obama years was his plaints about the GOP’s tone, and his support for comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core. Those two issues have come up over and over again during the early phase of the campaign, and while Bush has adjusted his positions a little, he hasn’t changed them.
When he said at the outset of his run that he’d be willing to lose the primary to win the general, it seemed a poetic (not to mention nonsensical) exaggeration, but occasionally it’s appeared to be his actual plan. He can come off as a scold. When he says how optimistic and inclusive he will be, it sounds like he thinks most everyone else in the GOP is pessimistic and exclusionary. The party won’t naturally warm to someone who seems to think it has to be saved from itself.
And there will, of course, be no winning the general without winning the primary. Bush gave a spirited announcement speech to a boisterous crowd in Miami, the best public moment of his campaign so far. The party will need to know he’s a fighter, and chiefly of the left and the media, not his own side. It will need to know that he has an agenda new and different from his brother, and much broader and more conservative than his famous stances on immigration and Common Core.
Bush is a genuinely accomplished executive and a creative policy wonk, with a natural sense of authority. He is a talented man, in the political fight of his life.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.