Will Jeb Bush Fill the GOP’s Governor-Shaped 2016 Hole?

So far, all the former Florida chief executive is saying is that he plans to follow his bliss.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush waves to the audience at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 30, 2012 on the final day of the Republican National Convention.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Feb. 7, 2014, midnight

All of a sud­den, Jeb Bush is in the sweet spot.

That was not the case one year ago, when it was the ex-Flor­ida gov­ernor’s protégé, Sen. Marco Ru­bio, who was de­clared “the sa­vior of the Re­pub­lic­an Party” by Time magazine. Bush, in con­trast, looked dated and squishy while pro­mot­ing a book that backed off his past sup­port for cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants.

Now, Bush’s more cau­tious ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion re­form is right in line with the prin­ciples that House Re­pub­lic­ans re­cently ad­op­ted. The year­long im­mig­ra­tion de­bate has bruised Ru­bio, while scan­dal has han­di­capped an­oth­er po­ten­tial 2016 rival, Chris Christie. With the New Jer­sey gov­ernor’s fu­ture look­ing un­cer­tain and pub­lic opin­ion of Cap­it­ol Hill worse than ever, old-school Re­pub­lic­ans and busi­ness elites are cast­ing about for an­oth­er can-do ex­ec­ut­ive from out­side Wash­ing­ton.

Bush is an ob­vi­ous pro­spect. Des­pite the bag­gage his name car­ries in some circles, the reser­voir of good­will among Re­pub­lic­ans for Bush is deep, and his pop­ular­ity with the suit-and-tie crowd is high. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce turned to him just this week to star in a tele­vi­sion ad for Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly, who is run­ning in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict.

But can Bush be pressed in­to ser­vice?

“Have press calls and in­quir­ies from op­er­at­ives in­creased? Yes. Does that mat­ter? No,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Sally Brad­shaw, Bush’s former chief of staff. “The horse race is simply not the lens through which he’ll make his de­cision. It’s nev­er been the lens through which he views any de­cisions, and it’s also still way too early.”

In­deed, while the polit­ic­al land­scape may have changed, Bush’s pub­lic po­s­i­tion on a po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial bid hasn’t, at least so far. He’s still re­fus­ing in­vit­a­tions to early-primary states for fear of set­ting off a me­dia frenzy.

He also turned down an in­vit­a­tion to speak next month at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton. The an­nu­al gath­er­ing of thou­sands of act­iv­ists serves as a high-pro­file plat­form for po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates — but Bush has a pre­vi­ously sched­uled busi­ness trip.

Those com­pet­ing op­por­tun­it­ies re­flect the broad­er quandary Bush faces: Will he con­tin­ue to pur­sue what ap­pears to be a luc­rat­ive and sat­is­fy­ing busi­ness ca­reer while weigh­ing in on polit­ics and policy from the side­lines and en­joy­ing his per­son­al life? Or is he will­ing to give all of that up for the par­tis­an scrum of all scrums?

“I’m de­fer­ring the de­cision to the right time, which is later this year,” he told a Miami tele­vi­sion re­port­er last week. “The de­cision will be based on, can I do it joy­fully — be­cause I think we need to have can­did­ates lift our spir­its; it’s a pretty pess­im­ist­ic coun­try right now — and is it right for my fam­ily?”

Bush’s re­marks were re­ceived as news, even though his an­swer was nearly identic­al to what he said in Novem­ber 2013.

“I’m go­ing to not think about it un­til the middle of next year. Then I’m go­ing to think about it really hard,” he said then, be­fore giv­ing a speech in Mil­wau­kee. “The think­ing part is not really re­lated to the polit­ics of all this, but wheth­er I can do it with joy in my heart and wheth­er it’s go­ing to be right for my fam­ily. Those are the two con­sid­er­a­tions.”

Jorge Ar­rizuri­eta, a long­time Bush fam­ily friend, in­ter­prets Bush’s de­sire for “joy” this way: He’ll run “if he thinks his en­trance in­to the race will be pos­it­ive be­cause of who he is and what he rep­res­ents, if he has a sense of wheth­er the coun­try is ready for an un­apo­lo­get­ic con­ser­vat­ive who isn’t of­fens­ive.”

“It has to feel right,” Ar­rizuri­eta ad­ded. “I think that’s where ‘joy­fully’ comes in. He won’t be forced in­to it. He’s got to feel like he can add value — and hope­fully win.”

The most com­mon knock on Bush, of course, is that he shares a sur­name with two past pres­id­ents whose fail­ures are re­coun­ted more of­ten than their suc­cesses. But an­oth­er chal­lenge if he runs will be his re­la­tion­ship with a con­ser­vat­ive base that’s moved far to the right since he last ran for of­fice more than 11 years ago. Party eld­ers hail him as “the only adult in the room,” but there’s lim­ited ap­pet­ite for tough love, judging from the damp re­ac­tion to his CPAC speech last year call­ing for the GOP to be “the party of in­clu­sion and ac­cept­ance.” Bush is also a cham­pi­on of the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion stand­ards, viewed by some con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists as an in­vit­a­tion to big-gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence.

So while Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Ted Cruz of Texas spend time in the early-primary states, Bush is liv­ing his life. He’s the pres­id­ent of his own con­sult­ing firm and a seni­or ad­viser to Barclays Cap­it­al. He com­mands the top tier of fees set by the Wash­ing­ton Speak­ers Bur­eau and serves on at least four cor­por­ate boards. He travels con­stantly and ad­ores his grand­chil­dren.

“Do I think he’s think­ing about run­ning for pres­id­ent? Ab­so­lutely. Do I think he’s ob­sessed about it? Ab­so­lutely not,” said Ann Her­ber­ger, a long­time fun­draiser for the Bush fam­ily. “I think he’s really, really happy right now.”

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