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Republicans are realizing that Jeb Bush is their only option in 2016
Facing a Hillary Clinton juggernaut, the GOP has no choice but to go back to the Bushes
 
Bush or bust.
Bush or bust. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Two months ago, I predicted that Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. The case was simple. With Chris Christie's nascent presidential campaign fatally imploding and the rest of the GOP field too weak to stop the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, a panicked Republican establishment was bound to turn to a known, safe, and relatively centrist quantity to serve as its standard bearer.

Many readers angrily dismissed the suggestion — though I noticed that many of my most passionate critics also tended to be Republicans who very much preferred Jeb not to be the nominee. Their argument was also easy to make: at the time Jeb was showing little sign of running, and there were comparatively few people clamoring for him to throw his hat into the ring.

What a difference a couple of months can make. Roughly a week into the first bona fide Jeb Bush presidential boomlet, the man who once flatly denied any intention of running has been remarkably busy. He teamed up with Louisiana Gov. (and presidential aspirant) Bobby Jindal on a video to promote a new project (NewRepublican.org) that will shape a positive message for the GOP going into the midterms and beyond. He attended a private dinner with Republican mega-donor (and Israel superhawk) Sheldon Adelson in his airplane hangar. He did a sit-down interview on Fox News Sunday. And he was at the center of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his father's presidency, which featured a who's-who line-up of establishment Republicans openly urging the former Florida governor to run.

All of this activity, meanwhile, is generating its own media buzz. In the past few days alone, George F. Will penned a column urging Republicans to give Jeb a closer look, and the Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported that top Republicans are working to draft Jeb into the race. (One of their sources predicted that the "vast majority" of Mitt Romney's top 100 donors would fall in behind Jeb if he runs.)

It's not hard to understand why. Even without a replay of the Bachmann-Cain-Gingrich-Perry-Paul GOP primary freak show of 2012, the party is heading into its confrontation with Hillary Clinton at a serious general election disadvantage. Some of the weakness has demographic roots that no single candidate can change in a single race. But the rest is a product of the party's rightward lurch over the past six years — and a restive base that demands absolute ideological purity on the part of candidates.

The result, as in 2012, is likely to be a primary contest devoted to winning the Real Conservative trophy. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul already spend most of their days trying to out-Tea Party the other. Marco Rubio would be doing the same thing if he wasn't preoccupied with figuring out how to distance himself from his role in drafting a failed immigration reform bill that was wildly unpopular with the angry white grassroots of the party. And so it goes down the line, with Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, and other wannabes bringing up the rear — all of them desperate to earn the support of the party's populist foot soldiers.

By the time it's all over, the 80+ percent of America that isn't furiously right wing will likely have been persuaded that, however disappointing the Obama years have turned out to be, there are worse things than spending another four years with a centrist Democrat in the White House.

Unless, that is, a candidate with broader appeal comes on the scene. For a time, it looked like Chris Christie might be such a candidate. But the Bridgegate scandal continues to fester, and it has managed to reinforce the impression that the man from the swamps of Jersey is a bully and a thug.

And that leaves Jeb.

Not that he's a perfect candidate. One of his biggest strengths — name recognition — is also his greatest liability. But I think the "Bush" problem is overstated. Yes, his brother left office stunningly unpopular. But his favorability ratings have already rebounded, with 47 percent of those surveyed in the spring of 2013 approving of his job as president. (And that was before he charmed the nation by serving as Vladimir Putin's portraitist.)

That doesn't mean America is ready to embrace another Bush. But it does mean that anti-Bush sentiment isn't likely to be a major factor in a Jeb candidacy.

Jeb's biggest challenge as a candidate will be the same one that any moderate Republican with national ambitions has to confront today: the right-wing gauntlet of the primaries. Jeb even has his own version of Rubio's immigration-reform problem, since he's gone out of his way over the years, including recently, to appeal to Latino voters. Unlike Rubio, however, Jeb doesn't have his fingerprints all over this most recent immigration bill — and he was politically shrewd enough to distance himself in his 2013 book from the bill's pathway to citizenship, which is deeply unpopular on the right.

That is less than ideal, but it's certainly not as tricky as trying to run a presidential campaign against ObamaCare when you're the man who invented ObamaCare.

And anyway, Bush's subtle position on immigration might actually make him the only candidate with any chance of managing the well-nigh impossible feat of appealing to Latinos without actively antagonizing the Republican base.

None of this should be taken to mean that I'm cheered by the prospect of a Jeb Bush candidacy in 2016. On the contrary, I find it deeply depressing.

As I argued in my original column, a Clinton-Bush general election contest in 2016 would be a disconcerting sign that the American political system is becoming a nepotistic oligarchy in which a handful of wealthy, prominent families vie for political power against each other, with the rest of us serving as mostly passive spectators.

That's hardly something to get excited about.

On the other hand, a Clinton-Bush match-up would spare us, for a few years at least, from the prospect of a real-life Frank Underwood ending up in the White House.

Ah, the little victories!

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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