First, the good news for Jeb Bush: Even his rivals concede he’s about to post the monster first quarter of fundraising that has been his goal. Also, the candidate who emerged as Bush's chief threat, Scott Walker, is now struggling under the glare of sudden national scrutiny, stalling his early momentum and raising doubts about his long-term durability.
Now, the bad news: The opening for another Republican to knock Bush off is still as big as ever.
The question is whether someone in this crowded field is capable of rising up and taking advantage of it – or if Bush will catch the same break of a lifetime that Mitt Romney did four years ago when one comically inept rival after another tried and failed to seize on a similar opening.
All of the latest data confirm that Bush’s aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering – coupled with press coverage that tends to treat him as the obvious front-runner – has so far failed to erode the significant resistance to him that exists among his party’s rank-and-file. He leads the latest, national GOP poll with a meager 16% of the vote, runs far back in Iowa, and struggles in other early-voting states. Nor can he make much of a pragmatic argument about electability to Republicans – not when he’s less popular among all voters than even his brother, George W., and not when he’s running 15 points behind Hillary Clinton in trial heats, worse than Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and even Mike Huckabee.
The lack of excitement among Republican voters, as I’ve written, can be traced to the right’s reading of the last Bush presidency, the idea that in embracing “compassionate conservatism,” Republican elected officials sacrificed principle and enabled the rise of Barack Obama. Thus is today’s conservative grassroots supremely suspicious of leaders with establishment connections and insider connections – like, say, Jeb Bush.
Of course, this was also the case in 2012, when the establishment’s choice, Romney, nonetheless won the nomination. And that gets to the argument for Jeb’s supposed inevitability that you most often hear: The establishment always wins these things.
It's true enough, but consider the pathetic opposition Romney faced in the primaries: Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry – each of them weighted down by devastating or politically suicidal campaign trail blunders. Perry, don’t forget, rocketed to 40% as soon as he entered the race, nearly doubling up Romney. That’s how large the GOP base’s appetite was for a credible alternative, and that’s how thoroughly inept all of his opponents proved to be.
The takeaway from ‘12 isn’t that the establishment candidate won; it’s how close the establishment candidate came to unraveling without facing a truly credible opponent.
That’s why Walker was – and perhaps still is – such a threat to Jeb Bush. Unlike the sideshow acts who opposed Romney, Walker comes to this race a proven, political survivor, a man who, in the face of well-funded Democratic opposition and withering media scrutiny, has won two elections and survived one recall in a Democratic-friendly state. That suggests he has the chops to hold up in a one-on-one race with Bush – to keep the party’s elites from uniting against him in panic, as they did with Newt and all of the others four years ago.
Or at least that’s what his background suggested. But since polls began showing him catching and overtaking Bush, Walker has committed a series of self-inflicted errors, from seeming to suggest an equivalence between union protesters in Wisconsin and ISIS fighters to his statement that Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of striking air traffic controllers was “the most important foreign policy decision of my lifetime.” All of this led the National Review’s Eliana Johnson to report this week that on the right, “the whispered doubts about whether Walker can successfully scale up are louder than ever.” And on top of this is the potential reemergence of a pesky campaign finance investigation relating to the recall campaign three years ago.
In other words, it’s possible that Walker will end up just like all of Romney’s foes, another shooting star that quickly flames out. But even if Walker does go away, there are other potentially formidable opponents ready to assume the slot he now occupies – the non-Bush candidate who simultaneously appeals to the conservative grassroots without unduly panicking the party’s donor class and opinion-shaping elites.
After Walker, Marco Rubio appears to be the most likely to slide into that role. After irking the right with support for comprehensive immigration reform two years ago, he has repositioned himself as a hardliner on the issue and won back much of the ground he lost. He has also carved out hawkish turf on national security, loudly castigating the Obama administration on Cuba, Israel, Iran, all to the delight of the GOP base. A youthful son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio might also be an attractive option for Republicans seeking a fresh face and a solution to their struggle with Latino voters.
That said, there are still questions about Rubio’s ability to raise money, and some suspect he’ll ultimately opt to seek Florida’s governorship in 2018. Also, his finances could prove problematic if and when his opponents and the media ratchet up their scrutiny.
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Beyond Walker and Rubio, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal might also make a claim on the role of chief Jeb rival, although he remains haunted by his dreadful State of the Union response a few years back, and he may also have a penchant for over-the-top rhetoric that leads pragmatic Republicans to turn on him. And Chris Christie would love to play that role, although his baggage is already well-established, and could get worse with Bridgegate indictments reportedly looming.
But the most interesting potential threat to Jeb isn’t running – yet. Ohio Governor John Kasich, reelected last fall in an historic landslide, was in New Hampshire this week and has been issuing fiery defenses of his conservative credentials. A leading Republican congressman in the pre-W. 1990s, Kasich now sports solid outsider credentials that could appeal to the GOP’s anti-establishment grassroots.
None of this, of course, means that Jeb is doomed. His opponents could all prove fatally flawed, leading to another campaign filled with surge-and-bust storylines. Or maybe none of them will manage to consolidate the anyone-but-Jeb sentiment, allowing Bush to maneuver his way through a divided field. And even if Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Rand Paul have little to no chance of wresting the nomination, they all threaten to complicate that math that all of the serious threats to Jeb will be counting on.
But what’s clear is that the opportunity to dethrone Bush is there for the taking – if one of these guys can take advantage of it.