While his brand of conservatism has fallen out of favor, Bush’s maturity and policy savvy have not.
Jeb Bush isn’t a fresh face. The conservative base isn’t enamored of him. And his family name isn’t necessarily an asset.
Yet when Bush climbs the stage at Miami Dade College on Monday to announce for president, there won’t be a radical makeover. It isn’t really an option. His months as a candidate-in-waiting — which have seen him lose his once-undisputed front-runner status and fade to a middle-of-the-pack candidate in Iowa — have further boxed him in, surrounding him with younger, seemingly more dynamic candidates.
That leaves Bush with one straightforward path to the GOP nomination: an argument based on his durability and electability. As he explained to reporters on his foreign trip last week, he’ll remain “authentic” to the political persona he’s carved out over two decades in the public eye. Bush expects to win by emphasizing traits that seem almost quaint by modern campaign standards: maturity, substance and a record of governance — that and his conviction that he’s the party’s best shot of winning the general election.
“What I tell all the advisers who sign on to work for him is, ‘Let Jeb be Jeb’,” said Al Cardenas, a former Republican National Committee chairman who’s a close confidant of the candidate. “Because, A, that’s how it’s going to be; and, B, it usually turns out pretty well.”
The former two-term Florida governor sums up his record as “conservative principles, applied the right way” — a summation that gets to the heart of his challenge. His application of conservative principles runs afoul of current GOP orthodoxy on litmus test issues like immigration and Common Core, serving to remind primary voters that he hasn’t run for office in over a decade. And over that period of time, his brand of establishment conservatism has fallen out of favor among Republican primary voters.
On the eve of his presidential campaign announcement, Bush acknowledged he has the burden of persuasion.
“I’m not going to change my views because today someone has a view that’s different,” Bush said Saturday in Estonia, at the end of a weeklong European tour. “I think candidates have a duty to persuade; that’s what this is about — it’s about the power of ideas and then giving people a sense that you have leadership skills to actually make it so.”
Bush is armed with one great advantage. His super PAC is likely to have hauled in around $100 million (its mid-July FEC report will reveal the final number), which will allow his longtime strategist Mike Murphy to polish Bush’s image and, when necessary, to turn its guns on Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker or whichever GOP hopeful poses a serious threat.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. He’s probably going to have the most artillery, and that’s an advantage,” says Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “The ‘shock and awe’ didn’t work out, but you can’t write off a guy who’s going to start with $100 million in the bank.”
The Bush team’s theory of the case is that their cash advantage will build a superior operation that can mount a national campaign and that’s built for the long haul. While Jeb has outlined his strategy as being “willing to lose the primary in order to win the general election” — a reference to his willingness to hew to positions that are unpopular with GOP primary voters — it’s not a proposition he seriously wants to test.
Bush doesn’t have to win the Iowa caucuses, only avoid an embarrassing finish well outside the top three. The New Hampshire primary, the second contest on the 2016 calendar, offers Bush a better chance to actually win. While a victory there would be important symbolically, it’s not viewed as mission-critical: Given the resources available to him, he just has to do well enough in February — probably no worse than a second-place finish in New Hampshire — to be a viable option when the calendar page turns.
March 1 is when the Bush organization’s resources will truly reverberate as his treasury is likely to enable him to play in the many states — at least eight, perhaps more — all holding contests that day. With potentially more than 600 delegates up for grabs across the country, this is the date Bush’s team has circled on the calendar as the day that may help him gain separation from the rest of the field.
“You’ve got to have a real operation to target delegates in so many states, and in individual counties within those states,” David Kochel, who will oversee Bush’s early-state strategy, said last month. “That requires more than just a few people.”
For Bush, the bigger hurdle might be the family brand, and the GOP’s desire to present a fresh face to contrast with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In addition to confronting Bush fatigue, the former Florida governor has struggled to find the right balance when speaking of his brother George W., as evidenced by a spate of bad publicity surrounding Jeb’s inability to articulate an answer to the question of whether the U.S. was right to invade Iraq.
While GOP rivals have sought to subtly cast Bush as being a candidate of the past, his ace in the hole is the impression that he’s also the grownup in the room — a valuable asset in a campaign that will likely pit the GOP nominee against a heavyweight like Clinton. Bush has a record of executive experience that senators like Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz can’t match and a familiarity with the world stage that far surpasses Walker.
He’s also won statewide election twice in a critical swing state and speaks fluent Spanish, two selling points that will come handy during the 2016 general election homestretch.
“He is someone who has demonstrated leadership, the ability to work with people who don’t necessarily agree with him and the ability to get things done,” said Ken Juster, who served as undersecretary of commerce during George W. Bush’s first term and traveled with Jeb Bush last week in Estonia as an unofficial foreign policy adviser. “Those are important qualities. Over the course of the campaign, these qualities will become clear to the American people. I think they’ll find these very attractive qualities.”