The Republican Party now has a completely credible heavyweight in the presidential hunt — and a knock-down, drag-out fight ahead.
A successful former two-term governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, starts the race as someone who is easy to imagine as president of the United States. In that respect, he’s pretty much a group of one in the putative and possible 2016 GOP field.
“He plants the flag in the center-right governing universe,” observes New Hampshire GOP wise man Tom Rath. “That’s where George W. Bush came out of, where John McCain came out of, where Mitt Romney came out of.”
Bush will occupy a lot of space there. A Republican establishment favorite, he’s a smart, serious, ideas-driven person who can raise the kind of money it takes for a successful campaign.
But his all-but-assured candidacy also means we’re certain to see a confrontation in the GOP corral between the pragmatic establishment Republicans and the party’s self-styled outsiders and ideological warriors. That could play out much the way the bare-knuckle feud between the GOP’s congressional establishment and its Tea Party wing has in various senatorial contests.
That hasn’t been the case in the last few presidential primary cycles, when those intra-party hostilities erupted more as skirmishes than outright combat. That’s partly because of the personalities involved, partly because the GOP’s internal divide was less pronounced, the issues less prone to instant polarization.
Back in 2008, for example, an individual-mandate-based plan still qualified as a plausible conservative approach to health care, and climate change was an issue Republicans could acknowledge without being considered ideological heretics.
The GOP has spun steadily rightward since then, though; the Tea Party types and brook-no-compromise absolutists are more assertive, the demands that aspirants adhere to conservative correctitude more strident.
Several of the GOP’s possible 2016 candidates are actively courting that part of the party. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are the most prominent ones, though former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry are also sounding those themes.
It’s hard to spot a potential president in that bunch. Santorum is a hyper-partisan has-been, while Perry comes off as a hard-right lightweight. Cruz is smarter, but he’s a solipsistic zealot whose synthetic pseudo-sincerity is both smarmy and off-putting. Paul is a more intellectually interesting figure, but though his libertarianism gives him a defined and durable constituency, it also creates big hurdles to leading a party that favors a strong US role in the world.
Still, it is easy to envision any one of them waging a pitched outsider’s battle against Bush.
In his two campaigns, Mitt Romney squandered his authenticity and his centrist general-election appeal by primary-campaign flip-flops aimed at reducing differences with his more conservative rivals.
Bush, however, has signaled he won’t go that route. A successful GOP presidential candidate, he said recently, must be practical, positive, and principled — and willing to risk defeat in the primaries to stay viable in the general. If he’s true to his word, immigration and education should become primary campaign flash points, since Bush’s support for broad immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards puts him out of sync with conservative true believers on both matters.
If there’s little doubt that Bush will face a sharp challenge from the right, it’s less certain whether another Republican will seriously jockey for the role of establishment favorite. Any chance for Romney to play his favored role of political white knight reluctantly responding to a growing chorus of voices is now gone, reducing the chance that he’ll run again.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is obviously interested, and Ohio Governor John Kasich and Indiana Governor Mike Pence have both drawn some interest, as have a variety of other political figures. But none has the franchise name, visibility, or connections Bush enjoys. Meanwhile, harder to categorize possibilities like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would be left looking like the junior varsity.
Right now, anyway, the big questions for Republicans are these: Who will come to fill the role of principal right-wing challenger? And what will matter more to the GOP this campaign cycle, presidential plausibility or political purity?