Ramesh Ponnuru: Yes, Jeb Bush could win a Republican presidential primary
“The notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party,” writes Ben Smith of BuzzFeed.
The former governor of Florida, who over the weekend said that he was weighing whether to run for President, hasn’t just been out of the game too long, Smith argues. He’s also at odds with “today’s Republican Party” on immigration and education. He’s like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, in that rejecting what the party has become is “the core of Jeb’s political identity.” And he’s like Texas Gov. Rick Perry in portraying “the immigration debate as a matter of core human values, not a legitimate policy dispute.”
I think Smith has misunderstood the Republican Party and the primary process.
As I’ve argued in several Bloomberg columns, the party since 1984 has given its presidential nomination only to people who are at its ideological center of gravity or to its left, and never to anyone to its right. There are reasons for that pattern — having to do with, among other things, the perennial inability of the party’s right to agree on a candidate — and those reasons haven’t disappeared.
Neither Perry nor Huntsman had the support of the party’s establishment, or the national network of funders and supporters, that Bush would have. Perry’s notorious immigration comment during the 2012 campaign — he called some of his opponents heartless on the issue — harmed him so badly because he needed to solidify the conservative end of the party against an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney.
Bush wouldn’t be in the same position. He’d be the establishment candidate himself (or at least one of them). He’d be trying to win over a different group of voters, who take a more moderate view of immigration. And Bush’s own controversial comment on the topic last weekend — he said illegal immigration was “an act of love” — was also less offensive to Republicans who disagree with him, because he didn’t say that they were heartless but rather that they weren’t viewing the issue the right way.
Bush’s position within the primary electorate, in other words, would be more like that of Sen. John McCain — who won the nomination not so long ago, in 2008. Actually, it would be better than McCain’s, as McCain’s record included a lot more deviations from the party line than Bush’s does.
Education, the other liability that Smith identifies, is also unlikely to sink Bush’s candidacy. Support for Common Core educational standards might be a problem for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, if he runs, because he too will need to build his coalition from the rightmost portions of the Republican Party, which sees the standards as federal meddling. But Bush — who adamantly supports the Common Core — will again be going for different voters.
None of this means that Bush would be certain to win the nomination. His supporters have their own blind spots. They say, for example, that “the last-name issue” — the political liabilities associated with being part of a dynasty — will be neutralized because he’d probably be running against Hillary Clinton. Two flaws with that theory: Clinton would get to run as the first female presidential nominee, and the Republicans, by picking Bush, would give up the possibility of running a break-from-the-past campaign against her.
Even so, Bush would have a very good chance of winning the nomination. And he is highly unlikely to lose it because he is too moderate on immigration and education.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @RameshPonnuru.