Frank Bruni: Choosing a college hits crossroads

Frank Bruni, New York Times


Let Rand Paul have his epic filibuster and Ted Cruz his scowling threats to shut down the government. Let Chris Christie thunder to a second term as the governor of New Jersey, his hubris flowering as his ultimate designs on the White House take shape.

Jeb Bush, lying low in the subtropics of Florida, has something they don’t: the unalloyed affection of many of the Republican Party’s most influential moneymen, who are waiting for word on what he’ll do, hoping that he’ll seek the 2016 presidential nomination and noting with amusement how far he has drifted off fickle pundits’ radar, at least for the moment.

Politics today has a shorter memory than ever. It also has a more furious metabolism, which Bush hasn’t fed much since March, when he was promoting a new book on immigration and created enormous confusion about whether he does or doesn’t support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who came here illegally. (He later clarified that he does, with caveats, and even later praised immigrants for being “more fertile.”)

That awkwardness gave some of his supporters pause, as they wondered whether he’d been too long out of the fray and was too clumsy for the split-second hyperscrutiny of the Twitter era. He hasn’t run for anything since 2002, when he was re-elected as the governor of Florida, an office he left in early 2007. A whole lot has changed since.

But with the exception of that immigration mess, Bush has been a more articulate advocate of a new tone and direction for the Republican Party than have Paul, Cruz, Christie or others currently in the foreground of the 2016 race, which has already begun, on both sides of the aisle.

Bush has signaled more willingness for fiscal compromise with Democrats than Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, for example, have. He has rightly emphasized the importance of social mobility to America’s fortunes and has rightly sounded an alarm that such mobility is on the wane.

At 60, he’s older than any of the five potential Republican presidential candidates I’ve already mentioned or than Scott Walker (don’t forget him), Bobby Jindal or Rick Santorum. His face is less fresh, thanks largely to a surname shared with the party’s past two presidents.

But here’s the first great irony, oddity, oxymoron or whatever you want to call it of the 2016 race: If Republicans care about safeguarding their future, their wisest and best bet may be to reach back into their past. In a pack not exactly brimming with moderate, sensitive voices, Bush’s stands out as less strident, more reasonable and more forward-looking than his potential rivals’.

While Bush may lack Christie’s verve, he’s shown some of Christie’s nerve. Last year he said that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have a difficult time fitting into the intensely partisan GOP of today and “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.” Said Bush earlier this year: “We’ve lost our way.”

The party needs to do better with Hispanic voters, and Bush isn’t just bilingual but also, in a sense, bicultural, with a Mexican-born wife. The state he governed and still lives in, Florida, has a large Hispanic population.

Swing voters looking for a Republican who supports abortion rights or gay marriage aren’t going to find one in him. But then they’re not going to find one in Christie or Ryan, either.

I’m told by people in the know that while Bush is definitely mulling a candidacy, there’s only a 20 to 30 percent chance that he’ll press the button. Many factors play into that decision: his family’s privacy; the reality that he and Rubio, his onetime political mentee, can’t both run; the nascent political career of his son George P. Bush, who might be better served by a longer Bush lull.

And then there’s the question that every presidential contender about to submit to a brutal and brutalizing process must ask: Is a burning desire for the White House really present? The fabled fire in the belly? It certainly seems to rage inside Paul, Cruz and Christie. They’re infernos of untempered ambition.

Bush has a cooler temperature. But for the party’s prospects in 2016 and its image beyond then, that could be good. Just as Republicans can’t be the Party of Stupid or the Party of No, they can’t be the Party of Perpetual Ire, and Bush isn’t great at irate.

He’s better positioned for 2016 than he was for 2012, when the bitter disappointments of his older brother’s presidency were more keenly remembered and frequently invoked. Besides, if Hillary Clinton indeed rolls to the Democratic nomination, Republicans needn’t be so concerned about a nominee of their own with a dynastic aura. Clinton versus Bush would be political royalty versus political royalty.

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