The 2016 presidential election is Jeb Bush’s now-or-never-moment.
As other potential GOP standard-bearers have been hit by scandal or seen their luster fade, many Republicans desperately want the former Florida governor to get in the race.
They believe he could be their Goldilocks candidate: Not too conservative, not too centrist; not too dull, not too unpredictable; not too inexperienced, and not too marred by scandal. In fact, just right.
But many of his greatest potential advantages could also be liabilities.
The Bush name gives him a deep and broad political network, but sour memories of his brother’s presidency still fester, while the notion of a third Bush in the White House since his father won in 1988 might strike voters as too dynastic. It could, ironically, also make the alternative of a second Clinton presidency, via Hillary, seem fresher and more attractive.
Jeb has not held elected office since 2007, which leaves him untainted by recent political dysfunction. But having fought no big political fights for so long might also have made him ring-rusty.
Witness the fumbled rollout of his 2013 book, Immigration Wars, which left people guessing whether he supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Still, his name hangs over the Republican field. If he takes the plunge, he would instantly become a top-flight contender.
Late last month, Slater Bayliss, a Florida Republican lobbyist, took his son to see a Miami Heat basketball game and had breakfast with Bush, for whom he was a close aide during the latter’s time as governor.
“I’ve never seen him so seriously considering a run for higher office,” Bayliss said. “He’s legitimately going through a very methodical, thoughtful process to come to a decision.”
As Bush speaks to many of his business and political associates, the conversations often tend to shift toward 2016, Bayliss said, adding, “People who are generally in touch with him about ideas now pivot those conversations to be more about politics because they see an opening.”
Ana Navarro, who worked in Bush’s gubernatorial administration and was an adviser to his older brother’s presidential campaign, confirmed that the younger Bush is giving serious scrutiny to a White House run.
“Certainly he is going into more detail about it than he has ever before,” said the GOP strategist. “In the past he has shut the door completely. This time he’s telling us he is going to think about it.”
Bush himself said in January that he will make a decision “later this year,” and it will be based on whether he can run in the right spirit.
“The decision will be based on, can I do it joyfully? Because I think we need candidates to lift our spirits; it’s a pretty pessimistic country right now,” Bush told a local CBS affiliate. “And is it right for my family? So I don’t want to even think about that until the right time, and that’s later on.”
Republicans are looking for a leader on such issues as immigration and education reform, which resonate with voters nationally. Jeb certainly looks right on those issues. His is a multicultural family; his wife is from Mexico, and he speaks fluent Spanish, which could help the GOP appeal to Latinos.
Many party strategists believe Bush could transform the electoral map, turning blue states purple and purple states red.
Others point out that the “dynasty” problem might be neutralized if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, as many people expect.
Still, Bush’s toughest critic on this point could be his mother. Barbara Bush has repeatedly joked that the country does not need any more Bushes or Clintons, given that members of those two clans have been centrally involved in eight of the nine presidential campaigns since 1980.
Since leaving the governor’s mansion, Jeb has become president of his own consulting firm and a senior adviser to Barclays Capital, giving him the recent private-sector credibility he would need to make a pitch as a business-oriented candidate, if that is the profile he seeks to emphasize.
Bush also benefits from the troubles of his potential rivals. Recent turmoil has damaged two Republican establishment favorites, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and, to a lesser extent, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, while once-rising stars Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have lost much momentum.
Donors are among those looking toward Bush as a savior. Navarro said she has been fielding calls from GOP donors who had never met Bush but want to sit down and talk with him.
Chris Bravacos, a party strategist and former Mitt Romney bundler, says there are “no barriers” to a Bush campaign now.
“A Jeb Bush candidacy would be extremely attractive, if he’s running, to an awful lot of people,” Bravacos said. “I think a lot of people feel that the door is certainly wide open, particularly if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. Then you’re already reaching backwards anyway.”
Navarro emphasized, however, that Bush is not yet clearly signaling he will run, as some others have done. When they see each other at the Biltmore, the Miami hotel that she and her husband own and where Bush has an office, they “speak like normal people,” not mentioning his future aspirations.
“I know it strikes people as strange because that’s not what we’re used to from politicians, but Jeb actually means what he says and says what he means,” Navarro said. “The art of the political tease, showing some leg, it’s just completely lost on the man.”
So don’t expect Bush to make the traditional pilgrimages to early-primary states, or to suck up to donors such as Sheldon Adelson, or to inflame the Conservative Political Action Conference; he is skipping the annual conservative convention this year. He will make moves only when he has made the decision to run, allies say.
Navarro did say that Bush gets “more invitations than a wealthy debutante” to early primary states, many of which she fields, but he tends to turn most down.
Some take his silence as a sign he will not run after all. Bravacos was slightly surprised at renewed speculation because he had seen nothing to suggest that Bush was moving toward the 2016 race.
“It’s not like there’ve been many public indications that he’s definitely interested in doing it,” he said.
Bravacos noted that, until Bush makes moves, donors will not be making any commitments.
Logistically they cannot do so. Unlike other hopefuls, Bush does not even have a super-PAC or active campaign account, so there is no clear way for donors to support him financially.
But he might be able to short circuit the normal courtship rituals.
His name and network remains “large and robust,” according to Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson.
“A candidate like Jeb Bush has an opportunity and an ability to throw an infrastructure together for a campaign that’s a lot faster than other people might have,” Wilson added.
Still, in a party full of people waiting for Jeb, his allies wish he would hurry up and run.
Navarro is among those hoping he makes his intentions clear. “I’m not the most patient of people,” she said. “If I had a dollar for every journalist who calls wanting to know where Jeb’s head is, I could buy myself a really fancy pair of shoes.”