The biggest winner of the midterms will be someone who isn't running.
If enough Democrats defy the conventional wisdom and show up at the polls, as I expect, Republicans will fall short of a majority in Congress and will be left to contemplate the train wreck of their premature victory express. If after Nov. 2 Republicans face a marginally Democratic House and a Democratic Senate majority of 53 or even 55, there will ensue an uncivil war between the Tea-types and the pros who will blame them for dragging the GOP too far to the right.
Bitter tea drinkers will instead imbibe the notion that the cause of the midterm shortfall was the failure to be hard-line enough; looking toward 2012, they will rally to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee or someone less well known but no less extreme, such as South Dakota Sen. John Thune. He's telegenic, but so is Palin — and to one degree or another, all of them would wither in the glare of a general election campaign.
The Republican establishment will resist them, but who can stop them? The usual suspects, Mitt Romney and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, will be painted as unacceptably pragmatic and unconvincingly principled — Romney for passing health reform in Massachusetts, Daniels for his too-sensible observation that at some point we may have to consider a tax increase. The fact that Mississippi Gov. Harley Barbour, the amiable good ol’ boy and supreme K Street lobbyist and fixer, is seriously mentioned as a national candidate testifies to the poverty of plausible presidents within the GOP.
Enter Jeb Bush. Following a disappointing midterm, he's likely to be both the most viable nominee and the most electable Republican for 2012. He has potentially the strongest financial base among traditional big money givers; he's also acceptable to most of the shrunken minority that kidnapped the party's primaries this year. He stood with them — rallying to their favorite Marco Rubio in the Florida Senate race--without joining them explicitly or mouthing their off-the-wall rhetoric.
It's hard, even impossible, to imagine Jeb Bush suggesting as Newt Gingrich recently did, that Barack Obama holds a "Kenyan, anti-colonial world view." (By the way, wasn't it right to be anti-colonial during the American Revolution and again when the winds of change swept Africa in the 20th century?) This Bush is probably more conservative than his brother — and he is untouched and untarnished by the retroactive Republican regret that George W. let spending and deficits get out of control. Jeb is for tax cuts and balanced budgets: He achieved both in eight years as governor of Florida — never mind that from Reagan on, the two objectives have been proven stunningly incompatible at the federal level.
For the religious right — which will again play a pivotal role in the GOP presidential primaries — the man who would be Bush III is staunchly anti-choice. He opposes gay rights without demonizing gays. Married to a woman from Columbia, he's avoided the anti-immigrant appeals that could deny Republicans the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote they need to win the presidency. You could call him a "compassionate conservative," but that term was already taken. He could run instead as a "mainstream conservative," sending resonant, if different, signals to the right and the middle.
Jeb Bush looks and sounds reasonable — much as Ronald Reagan did. He is a natural campaigner, better than either his father or his brother. And by virtue of lineage as well as record, for many voters he carries a presumption of competence — the notion that is he up to the job. He could confound it by stumbling in a debate or somewhere else along the trail. But he is a practiced politician—and likely the best and perhaps only way for Republicans to come together and bounce back if their excesses deny them the landslide they are already celebrating in 2010.
Nor is that the only scenario that could produce another Bush nomination. Assume, as many of the readers here do, that I am wrong — and that the GOP will triumph on Nov. 2. Then consider the rancid conflict that will rend Washington for the next two years. Bush II was positioned for the 2000 nomination precisely because he was in Austin, far from the arena of impeachment and confrontation between a polarized Republican Congress and the Clinton White House. Jeb too could be above the day-to-day fray; he could pledge, effectively if not sincerely, to "end the partisan bickering in Washington." Unlike a thoroughly tea-stained candidate, he could, and would, be ideologically right but temperate in tone. In short, presidential.
I have no idea whether Bush III will choose to run in 2012, and he won't be asking me. He could decide not to risk defeat against Obama, to wait four more years, to give the country a longer Bush break. Politics, though, has its own rhythms — and in the aftermath of a Republican midterm stumble, or amid the rifts and rage of a sharply divided government if they prevail or sweep this November, the party may be irresistibly drawn to a recycled idea.
It may be hard to credit this after two failed Bush Presidencies, and it might have been inconceivable to consider it just a year ago. But to paraphrase an old line that has concentrated the minds of politicians and parties before and will surely apply to the GOP as it prepares for 2012: Who the hell else have they got?