Groucho Marx said that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Jeb Bush’s future may hang on a political corollary. He would like to be the leader of a club that he doesn’t want to join. That’s the implicit message of Bush’s recent statement to the Wall Street Journal about his presidential deliberations. “I kinda know how a Republican can win,” he told the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib, “much more uplifting, much more positive, much more willing to be practical and … to lose the primary to win the general.” Bush then mused about what a Romney presidency would have looked like and how Bush might run the place. “Here’s a problem, let’s go fix it,” he said. “Put aside, you know, the ideological differences, let’s forge consensus around, this is a problem, how do we go from point A to point B to fix it.” (No wonder 73 percent of the audience of CEOs picked Bush as their preferred nominee.)
What the former Florida governor means about the relationship between the Republican primary and the general election is that his party’s clubhouse contest for picking a nominee is broken. It forces candidates to do things to get elected by Republicans that make them unappealing to the general election audience. When Seib asked what it would look like to run as a candidate who didn’t bend to the requirements of his party’s process, Bush replied, “Frankly no one really knows that, because it hasn’t been tried recently.”
If he runs, Bush will either be a revolutionary figure who overcomes his party’s nominating patterns or he will be this cycle’s Jon Huntsman.* The former Utah governor also shared Bush’s critical view of the GOP nominating process. In 2012, Republican primary voters did not like that message and the way he delivered it, and Huntsman flamed out after a third place finish in New Hampshire, where he had stacked all of his chips. After the campaign, Huntsman said the primary “wasn’t a period where rational thinking or any kind of commitment to reality or truth or optimism necessarily prevailed.”
Presidential hopefuls can run against Washington Republicans. They all are, including Bush, which is smart, given the GOP Congress’s low approval ratings. But when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal calls the Republican Party the “stupid party,” he’s not referring to its members; he’s referring to its Washington representatives who have strayed from the wisdom contained in the grassroots conservative voter. That’s not the same message Bush is sending. We know this because in the short period since the Wall Street Journal interview, Bush has already won the endorsement of a non-conservative editorial board.
This is not the first time that Bush has criticized the ideologues who have overtaken his party’s nominating process. In 2012, he said that his father and Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting the party’s nod today.* His formula for winning, says the 61-year-old Bush, is to stay optimistic and cheerful, and to not get bogged down in the intramural fights that overtake primaries and limit Republicans once they get in office from actually getting things done.
There would be a lot of competitors trying to drag Bush into those fights on issues from taxes to immigration to education where he has taken positions that are at odds with vocal conservative activists. Those issues are where the test between the primary and general election would take place. On immigration, for example, the public at large is more receptive to a path to citizenship for undocumented workers than those who participate in Republican primaries. Sixty-two percent of Americans favor a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the United States illegally, according to a nationwide poll published Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among Americans who identify with the Tea Party (who tend to reflect the audience in early primary states that votes more conservatively than the party as a whole), only 37 percent favor offering citizenship.
The big question with the Bush approach is whether he’ll ever get to the battle of ideas. By criticizing the Republican primary process, he strays into offending voters who participate in that process. That can wound in a far deeper way than any policy difference could. The message that gets conveyed—particularly to the die-hards already skeptical of him—is that Bush thinks he is smarter than they are, and if they’d just accept that obvious truth and get out of the way, he’d go ahead and win the election.
Bush’s defenders say that the criticism is aimed at the candidates who pander to the voters and run campaigns based on attacking their opponents for not being sufficiently pure. This doesn’t diminish the sting though, because when you criticize candidates for pandering, you’re implicitly criticizing the voters who buy the shoddy goods you say the hucksters are selling.
If he ran, Bush would know he needs to avoid the Huntsman trap. But in the heat of the primary it might get hard not to dismiss the criticism from others as the product of the stupid primary system that focuses on trivialities and rewards the candidates who embrace maximalist positions that are untenable in the real world. Bush will also have to field small explosions from the Republican donors who would like to see a Bush candidacy. In conversations with some of those promoting and hoping for a Bush candidacy the words “yahoo” and “crazies” have been applied to the Tea Party wing of the party. That sentiment is likely to break out into the open at some point in the primary period and cause headaches for Bush.
During the interview, Bush said that one of his considerations is the toll a campaign would take on his family, because politics is “a pretty ugly business right now.” His campaign would seek to elevate politics, and those who support him see his crusade to rescue his party from its ideologues as the only way to rescue the GOP’s presidential chances. It will be remarkable if it’s successful, because it’s likely going to be a pretty ugly business getting from point A to point B.
Correction, Dec. 4, 2014: This article originally misspelled Jon Huntsman’s first name and Ronald Reagan’s last name.