As Jeb Bush formally enters the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, allow me to make a humble request of the former Florida governor: Please drop out.
I appreciate that my request is impertinent in the extreme. Bush is by all accounts one of the most creative, thoughtful, and disciplined minds in American politics, and if anyone has earned the right to weigh in on the future direction of the GOP, it is him. I also appreciate that my timing is awful. To drop out immediately after entering the race would seem capricious, and no one wants to look like a flighty weirdo, least of all an elder statesman who deserves to be taken seriously.
Rather than drop out this week or next, perhaps Bush can do what he does best and spend the next few months developing a series of substantive policy ideas that any future GOP nominee might embrace. He can elevate these ideas by touting them as an official candidate before dropping out some time in the fall. Think of this as a bait-and-switch, in the most benign sense. By suggesting that he is fully committed to running a serious presidential campaign, Bush can get a hearing for any number of ambitious reform proposals that might be ignored if they came from a think tank or an obscure congressional backbencher. Perhaps this is exactly what’s going on—Bush’s supposed presidential ambitions are in fact part of an elaborate long con, in which he dupes us into engaging with the question of what Social Security ought to look like in the future, when today’s young adults retire, or how we should finance medical care in the coming age of revolutionary yet budget-busting life extension therapies. I, for one, would welcome such a deception.
My fear, however, is that Bush is sincere: He believes not just that he is well-qualified to be president, which is fair enough, but that he has a realistic strategy for winning an actual presidential election against Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see it. You know the basic argument: Fairly or unfairly, the Bush brand is tarnished, and Jeb Bush will have little choice but to be seen as a stand-in for his still unpopular older brother. Bush is a figure who has been around for a long time, and it’s possible that he’s too stale for an electorate hungry for change. I buy the idea that Bush has unique liabilities that would hurt him badly in a general election.
This wouldn’t be a problem if I believed that Bush would fare so poorly in the GOP primary that he’d have to drop out early, a not uncommon view among conservatives. All that would happen in that case is that Bush would waste the money of some of his wealthy friends, and he’d leave the race with a bruised ego. No big whoop. But here’s the thing—Bush can absolutely win the nomination. Despite the fact that he is in the same ballpark as Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson in poll after poll, he is in a much stronger position to win the nomination than any of them. So what does it mean if Bush has a very good chance to win the GOP nomination but very little chance of winning a general election? It means that a scorched-earth Bush campaign will make it impossible for any Republican to win in 2016.
To understand why Jeb Bush has the upper hand going into the primaries, consider Henry Olsen’s analysis of the “four faces of the GOP.” In a 2014 essay in the National Interest, Olsen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, offered a new framework for understanding the Republican coalition. Instead of dividing the party between a moderate “establishment” and conservative “insurgents,” a narrative that’s long since outlived its usefulness, he identifies four broad clusters of GOP voters. Even if Bush is not the first choice of all of these blocs, he’s not truly unacceptable to any of them.
One of the strange puzzles of GOP presidential politics is that though the Republican Party is an overwhelmingly conservative party, centrists wield disproportionate influence over the party’s presidential nomination process. Moderates and liberals (by Republican standards, mind you) represent 25-30 percent of GOP primary voters in presidential years, and even more in early states like New Hampshire, Florida, and Michigan. These voters gravitate toward Republican candidates who aren’t overtly religious, and who are less committed to tax and spending cuts than more conservative voters. Back in 2012, moderates and liberals embraced Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman early on in the campaign. Over time, however, they settled on Mitt Romney. In 2016, there are a number of candidates competing for these voters. Sen. Rand Paul’s civil libertarianism might appeal to them, despite his hard-right stances on other issues. Govs. Chris Christie and John Kasich often emphasize their ability to work with Democrats and their support for expanding Medicaid, positions tailor-made for the GOP’s moderate-liberal bloc. And Rubio has a decent shot too, due to his support for immigration reform, his talk of fighting poverty, and his generally inclusive vibe.
But it’s Bush who has the inside track with the RINO vote, who see his support for Common Core and immigration reform as proof of his seriousness and integrity. If the Christie and Kasich campaigns fizzle out for lack of money—not an entirely implausible outcome, given the Bush family’s talent for hoovering up donor dollars—Bush will be able to consolidate GOP moderates under his banner by painting Paul as an extremist and Rubio as a naif.
Very conservative evangelicals represent roughly one-fifth of the GOP primary electorate, though they are overrepresented in Southern and border states. Naturally, conservative evangelicals care deeply about opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, yet they tend to be open to more populist messages on economic issues. Mike Huckabee won these voters in large numbers in 2008, Rick Santorum won them in 2012, and Ben Carson, Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Sen. Ted Cruz will join in chasing after them in 2016. Bush won’t bother courting these voters, which is sensible, as these voters are unlikely to ever support him. Yet they’ll also be so divided among so many different candidates that their opposition is unlikely to prevent him from winning the GOP nomination.
Only about 5-10 percent of Republicans are very conservative, secular voters, yet Olsen observes that this group is massively overrepresented in the GOP intelligentsia, and so its mood swings garner outsized attention. As of now, I’d say that Walker and Cruz are the favorites of this camp, though Paul and Rick Perry have a shot with them. Note that Walker, Cruz, Paul, and Perry have all lauded the idea of a flat tax, a quasi-religious touchstone for very conservative seculars. Rubio might appeal to these voters, too. In an address to the anti-tax Club for Growth, he talked up the virtues of his own tax reform proposal, which would slash taxes on capital gains, a cause dear to the hearts of very conservative seculars, while not being entirely flat. These hyper-ideological voters are very suspicious of Bush, as they worry that he’s the second coming of his brother. Even so, they’d definitely favor him over Huckabee, Santorum, or Carson, if it came down to that.
But the biggest and most influential of Olsen’s blocs are the “somewhat conservative” voters, who represent 35-40 percent of the primary vote. Somewhat conservatives “like even-keeled men with substantial governing experience,” yet they’re also resistant to candidates who call for radical change or who seem eager to wage culture wars. This is Bush’s sweet spot, in theory. He is, after all, an even-keeled man with substantial governing experience. Bush’s most realistic rivals for the affections of somewhat conservatives are Rubio and Walker. That is why Bush intends to destroy Rubio and Walker.
Lest you think I’m making this up, last week, Ed O’Keefe and Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported that the Bush camp is gearing up to launch attacks on various other Republican candidates, including Rubio, a longtime Bush friend and protégé, and Walker. They are the two candidates who are the most plausible beneficiaries of a Bush exit, as both are candidates who manage to straddle the GOP’s ideological and cultural divides. They’ve both raised large sums from wealthy conservative donors, who appreciate their pragmatism, yet conservative activists generally consider them ideologically sound. With Rubio and Walker out of the way, the race would be Bush against various intemperate wackos who will terrify that key bloc of always-sober somewhat conservatives.
According to Olsen, it is somewhat conservatives who always choose the winner of GOP nomination contests, and it is easy to see why. Very conservative evangelicals tend to lose, as the candidates they love the most tend to repel moderates and liberals and very conservative seculars. Very conservative seculars, meanwhile, rarely get their first-choice candidates, as somewhat conservatives are skeptical of doctrinaire libertarian types, particularly when they seem a bit too secular. Moderates and liberals, similarly, will tend to coalesce around the candidate who is most acceptable to the somewhat conservatives.
So there you have it. Even now, as Bush’s proto-campaign underwhelms donors and activists, he has at least a 50-50 shot at winning the GOP nomination, thanks to the fact that he can make just enough Republicans dislike his most plausible opponents more than they dislike him. But will brutal attacks on Marco Rubio’s youth and inexperience inspire young people? Will months of tearing into Scott Walker encourage blue-collar Midwestern swing voters to back Bush? Could it be that condemning Rand Paul as a reckless isolationist will prove to skeptical moderates that he’s learned from the failures of George W. Bush’s foreign policy?
The Republican candidate who can win in 2016 is the candidate who can fight the Democratic candidate to a draw on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.” The fact that voters found Barack Obama more attuned to their economic anxieties than Mitt Romney is a big part of the reason Obama won, despite the fact that voters found much to like in Romney. Jeb Bush has many virtues. Relatability is not one of them. He should do the right thing and clear the way for the next generation of Republicans.