It seems increasingly likely that Jeb Bush will run for president. (Even his son is talking up the prospects.) What remains to be seen is whether Jeb Bush can actually win.
A lot of GOP establishment types are excited about a Bush candidacy. But don't expect the grassroots to eagerly embrace a former Florida governor who has made a habit of moderately breaking from conservative orthodoxy on big issues like immigration, or who recently (mildly) singled out Fox News for criticism. As the editor of the Washington Free Beacon said:
It's not hard to understand the Huntsman comparison. The former Utah governor — among the most conservative in the country during his tenure — was tarred as a base-betraying moderate before his campaign even officially began. To say he flamed out would be inaccurate in that he never lit up in the first place. Huntsman's much-hyped campaign was basically over as soon as it began.
Jeb already has the baggage of his brother to contend with. The last thing he needs is to invite are comparisons to the ill-fated Huntsman campaign. So how can he avoid this fate? Here are four pieces of unsolicited advice.
1. Toughen up. There are basically two ways that voters judge candidates. One is on the issues and the candidate's record on them. The other is based on temperament — our rather subjective sense of who this person is. For conservative voters who might be uneasy about Bush, his stance on some issues is problematic. Support for things like Common Core and immigration reform aren't exactly red meat for the GOP base. But Bush can balance this by being tough.
Huntsman was seen as ideologically moderate and temperamentally weak. That's a horrible combination. Ted Cruz is seen as ideologically stern and temperamentally tough, a better combination as far as the base is concerned, but probably one that catches up to him with the general electorate. Who has a good combination? Chris Christie's tough persona covers a multitude of sins on the issues — and indeed allows him to be a bit more ideologically moderate. Another example is John McCain. Moderate on some issues (including immigration reform), his tough-guy image helped provide balance — enough to win the 2008 nomination, at least.
Base voters on both sides of the aisle tend to conflate toughness with ideological purity. I'm probably more conservative than Ann Coulter, who backed Chris Christie for president in 2012 and defended RomneyCare. But I'm willing to bet everyone would suspect that Coulter, who is never afraid to take the knives out, is way more conservative than me. Style sometimes trumps substance.
Most candidates have a natural proclivity to be hard or soft. Mike Huckabee might be the best modern politician at playing nice and tough — but even here, the latter often comes across as inauthentic, and, ironically, as mean.
The problem for Jeb is that he seems to be temperamentally moderate as well as ideologically moderate. He needs to overcome this by getting tough. This is the most important thing he can do.
2. Don't flip-flop. Being tough sometimes mean sticking to your guns and standing up to the base (see Bill Clinton's Sister Souljah moment). Now, you might think that the smart move for Jeb would instead be to pander to the base and change his positions. This is almost always a terrible idea, and only compounds a candidate's image problem. The conservative base now not only distrusts you ideologically, but also sees you as a wimp — which is essentially the same as some caricature of an effete liberal. Yes, there may be ways to massage these things, to stress some issues and downplay others. But the answer for Jeb isn't to shed his moderate positions — that will only compound his problems. He cannot change his positions, no matter how tempting it may be. Doing so will make him look weak. And remember what we said about being tough?
3. Don't try to change the GOP base. This one probably seems obvious, but Jeb Bush isn't some backbencher running to "get a message out" or pull the other candidates toward him on certain issues (as Elizabeth Warren might if she challenged Hillary Clinton). If he runs, it should be to win. That means his purpose isn't to lecture the base or shame the base or change the base — it's to win the election. If he wants to win an argument instead of an election, he should stay home and write blog posts. Like me.
People can tell if you don't like or respect them. This is true of almost every profession. In Jerry Maguire, the title character's sports agent mentor tells him, "Unless you love everybody, you can't sell anybody." The same is true in the writing world: E.B. White said, ''No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence." If Jeb harbors any resentment toward the Republican base, he either needs to sit this one out (because it will show), or overcome it by flipping a psychological switch and reminding himself constantly that these are good people and that he loves them.
4. Don't lamely suck up to the GOP base, either. I realize this might seem contradictory. But it's not. And while Jeb cannot and should not be in the business of overtly pandering — doing so would make him look inauthentic and weak — he absolutely must reach out to conservative opinion leaders. He must be accessible. And this will be a problem for him, because he is a bit cloistered. And because of the star-power associated with being a Bush, he can already seem intimidating, and likely already has a team of handlers charged with isolating him from the masses (Rudy Giuliani suffered from this, as well).
How to overcome this? The best model I've witnessed was McCain, who in 2008 was incredibly accessible to conservative writers. In that regard, he probably over-performed. Jeb should read this.
Jeb Bush doesn't have to be Jon Huntsman. In fact, he might well be the next president of the United States. But to win, he'll have to toughen up, stay true to himself, and walk a tricky path between alienating and bowing before the GOP base. It won't be easy — but he can do it.