Jeb Bush doesn’t like process stories, the kinds of stories that focus on how candidates are running their campaigns or positioning themselves relative to other candidates. He wants to be an ideas guy. His political adviser Mike Murphy hates process stories, too. They are both right. Stories about the nuts and bolts of running campaigns outweigh by a vast margin the stories about whether the person running for office has the right skills, values, and character for the office.
We should never mistake a candidate’s talent as a campaigner for telling us all we need to know about whether he can hack it as a president. But stories on the inner workings of campaigns aren’t entirely without value. When Newt Gingrich’s campaign staff deserted him in the middle of the race, the reasons for the mass exodus told us something about the limits of Gingrich’s creative, messy mind. Plus, Bush is almost taunting us to write about process. He wants us to take cues about his facility with modernity because he was an early adopter of email and wants us to divine meaning about his commitment to transparency by releasing 250,000 email messages from his time as governor. He has talked a lot about how he will run his campaign differently than past Republicans, wriggling free of the crazy primary purity tests that have undone others. He is running as a disruptive force in the GOP primary as a way to show us how he might be a disruptive force for good in politics. (Pardon the use of that awful piece of jargon, but it fits here; I will pay jargon offsets by reciting a sonnet to schoolchildren.)
Jeb Bush hasn’t run a competitive campaign in 12 years—not since his re-election as governor of Florida in 2002. He should be rusty and slow-moving. But how he’s gone about taking this first step to run for the presidency may tell us something about what kind of fellow he is and give us the first clue about what his instincts might be in office, should he get there. In the last few weeks he has been brisk in reacting to evolving political events, and he has done so while keeping the campaign on his terms.
Before the flurry of recent Bush stories reporting on his announcement, he had little control over what was being written about him. A lot of the stories speculated about whether he would run. In a party where voters want action, he was looking a little like the GOP’s Hamlet. Mitt Romney’s supporters were actively working to diminish Bush’s stature in the press. A Bloomberg Businessweek story about his investments took center stage for a few days. He was getting the Hillary Clinton Treatment—the experience of having everyone else define the candidate without any input from the candidate.
By speeding up his rollout, Bush took control of his story. By releasing 250,000 emails from his time as governor, he will make an attempt to start a conversation about leadership, policy, and results. When the emails are published, this gambit may fail as badly as Clinton’s attempt to define herself with her book, but reacting and adapting to a changing landscape are useful skills for a candidate and a president. They wouldn’t necessarily be expected from a candidate who has been out of the game so long.
Bush also faces a unique management challenge: There are a lot of people in Bushworld. (Every candidate has this problem to some degree, but the Bush family is the largest political dynasty in America, so it also comes with the most advisers, consultants, and “friends.”) Some members of Bushworld have ties to his father, and some of them have ties to his brother. All of them could appear in news articles as “sources close to Bush” or “friend of the Bush family” or “Bush adviser,” and they will then be quoted saying any old things they like. Twitter will take it from there, and Jeb Bush’s actual team will spend the rest of the day tamping down the flames. That’s a management challenge for Bush and whoever is piloting his campaign, making sure that the fellow who has promised to run a revolutionary campaign isn’t blown off course by people pretending to speak for him. The only politician with a comparable problem is Clinton, who must keep tight reins on Hillaryworld (and a man named Bill).
Still, politics has gotten a lot uglier since Bush last ran; he’s said he’s very aware of that. The first real test will be whether he has the right temperament for a modern campaign. He’s taken stands on immigration, taxes, and Common Core that will excite frustrating attacks. Low-rent jibes about his father and brother will mushroom (and those punches have irritated him in the past). He has now gone from the comfortable recline of being a GOP wise man to a position in which he will face the equivalent of the most irritating person he can imagine having license to poke him in the forehead from sun up till sun down. Is he ready for that? He has been working out and appears to have lost some weight, but has he also been listening to some Jon Kabat-Zinn recordings? If not, those who look out for him should use one-click ordering and next-day delivery to stock his playlist. How he handles the madness of the campaign in this silly twilight period will set the first impressions voters and GOP donors have of him as a candidate, and it will tell us something about his ability to handle the pressures of the office that are only slightly more rational than the presidential campaign. He’ll also have to get used to one more irritating part of the campaign cycle: more process stories (like this one). He’s invited them.