Jeb: Will He or Won’t He?

Jeb Bush

The major question being asked by Washington campaign journalists and key GOP national players focuses on former Florida governor Jeb Bush: Will he or won’t he seek the 2016 GOP presidential nomination?

There is an increasing clamor for Jeb to run among members of the Republican donor class, particularly among those individuals with a Wall Street financial base. This clamor became even louder recently with the publication of Jonathan Gruber’s comments on ObamaCare. The Gruber revelations made the notion of drafting Mitt Romney impossible, given Romney’s past association with him.

Last Monday night, December 1, 2014, at a meeting of the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, Jeb promised to make a decision “in short order” regarding his possible 2016 presidential candidacy. He also emphatically criticized President Barack Obama’s recent executive order granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

The immigration issue and the Common Core education standards are the two objections that movement conservatives have raised to the possibility of a Bush 45 administration. While Jeb has consistently advocated a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he made clear in his Monday night address his differences with Obama, both in terms of the constitutional authority issue and the scope of the options given to illegal immigrants. While movement conservatives will not be satisfied by Jeb’s comments, his remarks may go a long way in assuaging the concerns of center-right Republicans on his immigration position.
With regard to the Common Core issue, there is an effective overall strategy for Jeb Bush to justify his advocacy of these standards from a conservative point of view. The strategy was suggested to me by Dr. Alvin S. Felzenberg, the acclaimed biographer of Tom Kean. Dr. Felzenberg is New Jersey’s most eminent scholar of presidential history and a highly respected professor at various universities, including Princeton, Yale, and Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Felzenberg noted that Common Core actually developed due to the advocacy of two conservative luminaries, Lynne Cheney and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett for a history curriculum that emphasized consensus American heroes (e.g. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln) rather than trendy revisionism. The Felzenberg strategy, in my view, goes a long way towards establishing that the positions advocated by Jeb Bush on education reform hardly are at odds with his conservative bona fides generally on issues of foreign and domestic policy.

If Jeb decides to run, he will in short order receive overwhelming financial support from the GOP donor class. This will have two major immediate impacts on the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes.

The first impact is that the national media will anoint Jeb as the frontrunner, due to his major financial advantage over the other candidates. The second is the possibility that a number of putative candidates for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination will withdraw, deterred by Jeb’s financial advantage. Those who withdraw while still harboring presidential aspirations will seek high positions in a Bush 45 administration, such as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or Attorney General. Such positions would provide these candidates with a base for a future possible White House candidacy, as well as a means to reinvent themselves and get rid of the baggage arising from their records in their current jobs.

You can be sure that Rand Paul, however, definitely will not withdraw. He will win the Iowa caucuses, resulting in Jeb and the other remaining candidates downplaying the Iowa impact.

If Jeb runs, will he win the GOP nomination? I have a penchant for describing political candidacies in boxing terms. Jeb is the George Foreman of 2016 candidates – he has the power to score an early knockout. If he does not, he may be in trouble in the later rounds – particularly if Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker remains in the race.

The knockout route for Jeb is clear: Downplay the Iowa caucuses, then win the New Hampshire primary with the assistance of those long time Bush family friends, former Governor John H. Sununu and his son, the former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu. Then, Jeb should seek the support of South Carolina U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham in order to win the South Carolina primary, a state whose Republican primary voters formerly strongly supported the candidacies of his father, George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) in 1988 and his brother, George W. Bush (Bush 43) in 2000. After that, Jeb will easily win the GOP primary in his home state of Florida, and the nomination will be his.

If Jeb fails to win either New Hampshire or South Carolina, he will not score an early knockout, and his failure to do so may result in his being overtaken by Scott Walker. Walker is very strong among Midwestern Republicans, and he is the darling of movement conservatives. This could result in Walker victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois and his replacing Jeb as the frontrunner.
The irony of this is that if Jeb is nominated, Scott Walker would be one of his two ideal running mates for vice president, the other being Ohio’s U.S. Senator Rob Portman. Walker would retain the loyalty of movement conservatives for the GOP presidential ticket, and he would have an excellent chance of enabling Jeb to win the 10 electoral votes of Wisconsin, a state that the GOP presidential ticket has not carried since the Reagan-Bush landslide of 1984.

As for Portman, his presence on the national ticket could enable Bush to win the 18 electoral votes in Ohio, a state without which no GOP presidential ticket has won the White House in modern American political history. As a former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Bush 43, Portman has an encyclopedic knowledge of federal programs that would enable him to easily prevail over his Democratic opponent in any vice presidential debate.

All this speculation, of course, begs the question as to whether Jeb will run. Despite being a member of “Bushworld” as a former high official in the administration of Bush 43, I have no clue as to what Jeb’s decision will be.

During this past year, there have been three gatherings of Bush 43 alumni in Manhattan, featuring such former Bush 43 officials as Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Josh Bolton, and press secretary Dana Perino. I attended all three gatherings; yet I did not hear anything that gave me any “inside knowledge” as to what Jeb is likely to decide.

One thing is certain to me. If Jeb Bush decides to run, he will be a totally focused and formidable candidate. A Hamlet-like Adlai Stevenson he is not.

So the GOP field of presidential candidates awaits word from Jeb. Stay tuned.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. Jeb: Will He or Won’t He?