By Tom Bevan, RCP
It wasn’t quite an “out-of-the-mouths-of-babes” moment — George P. Bush is 38 years old — but it was newsy nonetheless. Yesterday Jeb Bush’s eldest son told Jon Karl of ABC News that he believes his father is “giving this serious thought in moving forward … that he’ll run.”
Jeb’s thinking about running for president has been one tea leaf that many pundits have had a hard time reading. Unlike some of his fellow Republicans with 2016 aspirations, the former Florida governor has played it close to the vest. His big brother said recently that he believes Jeb would make a good president, but Dubya has been saying that for years. George P’s comment is the closest we’ve gotten to a glimpse at the inner circle, and it appears to confirm what many have suspected for some time: Jeb is ready to go.
But that raised the question: Is the Republican Party ready for Jeb?
There are some within the GOP who think Jeb has little chance of winning the nomination. The two most often-cited reasons are his support of immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards, both hot button issues among the conservative base.
But John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008 despite standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ted Kennedy in the summer of 2007 in favor of comprehensive immigration legislation. And Mitt Romney won the nomination in 2012 despite having authored and signed RomneyCare — a bugaboo for the current GOP base if there ever was one — into law while governor of Massachusetts.
In both cases, the Republican base held its nose and voted for the candidate who was seen as the “most-electable.” After losing both elections, party activists groused that was precisely the reason they had lost: nominating an “electable” candidate instead of a true conservative had failed to motivate the base and hadn’t offered voters a “clear choice.” They vowed not to do it again.
Although that excuse sounds good in theory, it’s hard to see how the GOP would have done better with Rick Santorum (or Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann) at the top of the ticket in 2012. It’s likely they could have done a lot worse.
But 2016 looks different. It is shaping up to be the most open nomination race either party has seen in modern political history — and perhaps ever for the Republicans. Looking at the latest polls, five potential candidates currently leading the pack are separated by less than two percentage points: Rand Paul (11.8 percent), Jeb Bush (11.6 percent), Mike Huckabee (11.3 percent), Chris Christie (10.6 percent), and Paul Ryan (10.0 percent). Another six candidates are currently being polled, with a couple of others, such as John Kasich and Mike Pence, who are not yet being included in the horse race polls but who could easily be legitimate contenders.
The GOP field in 2016 will not only have quantity but quality. This will not be another case, as the 2012 race was occasionally described, of Mitt Romney and the seven dwarves. The GOP will likely include a number of candidates, Jeb Bush among them, with significant executive experience and records of accomplishment. The ideological spectrum will run the gamut from establishment Republican to mainstream libertarian to conservative firebrand.
And though the advent of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, along with the appearance of super PACs, have made it possible for little-known upstarts to catch fire and have more staying power than they might have otherwise had in the past (see Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich), the race for president still favors those who have name recognition and the ability to raise huge amounts of money.
Among the 2016 field, Jeb Bush stands out as someone with both. And although the name recognition remains a double-edged sword, Democrats flocking to Hillary Clinton’s banner will be hard-pressed to decry the idea of a legacy candidate. Nothing, however, has done more to mitigate the “Bush” name issue than Barack Obama’s troubled second term. As the president continues to stumble through a cascading series of crises, many voters — and not just Republicans — look upon Bush 43 with kinder eyes, and now think fondly (rather than mockingly) of the man who once described himself as “The Decider.”
Democrats have been “ready for Hillary” since the day Obama won re-election. Now, given George P. Bush’s statement on Sunday, Republicans have to start asking themselves whether they’re ready for Jeb.
Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing