If Jeb Bush became a Democrat, I’m not saying he’d win the nomination, let alone the presidency, but he’d have a better shot at either than he currently does in the Republican Party.
As it stands now, Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions appear to be in jeopardy, with his campaign slashing salaries, downsizing office space, and letting people go. Last night’s debate was supposed to be Jeb’s big chance to show how much he wants this. By most accounts, he botched it, badly. Will the candidate generally seen as the “establishment” choice actually lose the Republican nomination? Or can he save his campaign?
Bush’s fundamental problem is that the logic behind his candidacy—the reasonably conservative, but plausibly electable former governor of an important swing state should be a nationally viable presidential candidate—doesn’t appeal to Republican primary voters who’d rather hear Holocaust revisionism from non-politicians who genuinely believe the popular folk myths of the tribal conservative movement. Unable to make any case for himself on the merits, Bush has been stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for his more fervent opponents to flame out. But they haven’t yet flamed out, and each time Bush faces a conservative audience, their hate for him just intensifies.
Without any actual message, Bush has just been bumbling around, acting like the worst sort of Bush: peevish, resentful, out-of-touch, and incapable of going off-script without embarrassing himself. Having raised more than $133 million, all Jeb Bush’s campaign has accomplished is allowing Donald Trump to normalize the long-taboo notion that George W. Bush bears some responsibility for not preventing the 9/11 attacks.
The Bushes are East Coast establishmentarians in a party that long ago moved its spiritual base to the Bible Belt. Their political successes have required quite a bit of adaptation. George H. W. Bush abandoned both his critique of Reaganomics and his support for reproductive rights. George W. Bush convincingly portrayed himself as a born-again evangelical (which he actually probably isn’t, at least according to the usual evangelical definition of “born again”). Jeb Bush has no policy positions that violate the sacred tenets of movement conservatism, but he is running against people who are genuine movement conservatives (well, and Trump, who is just an old-fashioned white populist), and he plainly isn’t one. And the great political skill of the Bush family has always been fundraising, not campaigning.
Trying to appeal to the sort of idiots who back Dr. Ben Carson for president is a mug’s game. It is demeaning and, thus far, fruitless. Worst of all, Jeb Bush is doing possibly irreparable damage to the Bush family legacy—specifically, their aura of power. Republicans rejecting a Bush should seem impossible. If it happens on this grand a scale, the entire edifice collapses.
That is a real possibility, and it’s one the family seems aware of. In a New York Times story last weekend, Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer presented a portrait of an aged and angry George H. W. Bush, looking on in disgust at what has become of his Republican Party.
More is at stake in this race than Jeb Bush’s political career, friends of the family say. The Bush name has been prominent in national politics for three decades, and a rejection of the younger son by the electorate, especially in the primary, could be deeply wounding to a family proud of its role in American history.
Jeb Bush hunkered down with donors and his family last weekend, partly to assure the former that he doesn’t intend to drop out, despite recent comments that make him sound less than enthusiastic about continuing his campaign. And he may well be in it for the long haul, even if he seemed, last night, like he barely wanted to be there. But the best thing Jeb Bush could do for the Bush family legacy—and for the portfolios of the wealthy families that have bankrolled generations of Bushes—is switch parties.
It would be an irresistible conversion narrative for Beltway idiots. All Jeb Bush would have to do is say he is embracing the political legacy of his father, a man who has, somewhat improbably, grown into a figure who represents the more “moderate” Republican Party that today’s centrists constantly claim to miss. Just read this Conor Friedersdorf piece (which is almost comically laudatory toward Bush), arguing that Jeb Bush needs to repudiate his awful brother and embrace his successful father, for a guide to how Bush could sell the conversion:
If Jeb were a better politician, a clearer thinker, or belonged to a clearer-thinking political party, the solution would be clear: run as George H.W.’s son, not George W.’s brother, just as Michael Corleone was better served emulating Vito than defending Sonny.
Friedersdorf’s not entirely wrong. Except that (as he knows) doing as he suggests would be exactly the wrong way to win the Republican nomination. But by repudiating Tea Party extremism, Congressional obstructionism, and nativism, and declaring himself a moderate with beliefs close to those of his father, Bush would immediately win himself a lot of very influential new fans.
The brainless “radical centrists” of the political media would swoon. Best of all, he’d be able to bring along his existing fundraising base while gaining brand-new Democratic rich people begging to write him checks. Every centrist party bigwig who doesn’t care for Hillary Clinton, but is terrified of Bernie Sanders, would welcome Jeb(!) to the race.
But isn’t Jeb Bush too conservative for the Democratic Party? The good news for him is that ideological realignment, and what Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann refer to as “asymmetric polarization,” have created, on the one hand, a Republican Party that is very, very conservative, and on the other, a Democratic Party that encompasses basically everyone even slightly more liberal than the very, very conservative Republican Party. Plus, the Bushes have always been ideologically flexible, except where it really counts: Looking out for their class interests.
Jeb Bush could easily piece together a policy agenda that could pass for something within the mainstream of the Democratic Party without offending any of his plutocratic donors and allies. He’d barely have to update his website. He could wholeheartedly support immigration reform—business interests love it—and corporate “education reform”—Democrats love it even more than Republicans do. He could make vague murmurs about a “grand bargain” and “fiscal responsibility,” to signal to backers that he has not wavered in his commitment to slashing retirement benefits, and still remain well within the parameters of normal Democratic Party behavior.
And, hell, if Jeb Bush really wanted to make things interesting, he could reject his brother’s foreign policy misadventures, talk up his father’s record (and bring on some of his father’s foreign policy advisers), and plausibly define himself as less hawkish than the ostensibly liberal Democratic Party frontrunner.
As Hillary Clinton appears to tack left, coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone Pipeline, there is an opportunity, for an opportunistic candidate, to run as the business-friendly alternative. There are plenty of influential wealthy Democrats—exactly the sort of people who would have been Northeastern Republicans back when the Bushes first established themselves as a political force—who would welcome a Bush into the party with open arms. It’s almost surprising that the Bushes haven’t already made the move; Jay Rockefeller and Lincoln Chafee come from similarly famous old Northeastern Republican families.
There’s already a Democrat in the race with a Republican pedigree: Hillary Clinton, who was once, herself, a Young Republican and a “Goldwater Girl.” As the GOP went through its Civil Rights-era realignment, she chose the moderate, Northern wing, supporting Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the presidency in 1968, and only finally becoming a Democrat when Nixon won the nomination instead. Her own conservatism was perfectly in line with the conservatism of George H. W. Bush, who was serving in Congress at the time.
“I’m done with this, absolutely,” Mrs. Clinton recalled thinking upon hearing Mr. Nixon’s acceptance speech. She characterized the Republicanism of her youth as one of fiscal conservatism and social moderation, and at odds with what she viewed as the intolerance of Miami.
“Fiscal conservatism and social moderation” remains a doctrine with a lot of appeal to a certain class of people. They’re not revanchists, who want to take the country back to a mostly imagined prior golden age. Nor are they people who want to reorder society to make it more just. They’re the people for whom the status quo works just fine. People in this class already make up the most important base of support for both Clinton and Bush.
That’s how one Federal Reserve chair, appointed by Ronald Reagan, serves during two separate Bush presidencies separated by two terms of a Clinton presidency. It’s why Barack Obama, in conjunction with his own Bush-appointed Federal Reserve chair and his Robert Rubin-mentored Treasury Secretary, responded to the 2008-2009 financial crisis with a series of decisions indistinguishable from ones President George H. W. Bush might have made in similar circumstances. It’s why Wall Street isn’t worried when a Clinton begins talking like a populist.
Do the Bushes really have any future in a party that can no longer abide a reliable Chamber of Commerce ally like John Boehner? I don’t think they do. Meanwhile, there seems plenty of room for them in the party of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and Cory Booker.
Part of the genius of Bill Clinton was his ability to lure a significant portion of the plutocracy over to the Democratic Party. Jeb Bush could be the man to bring the rest over, giving business interests more direct control over one party than at any point since perhaps the Coolidge-era GOP.
If Jeb could pull it off, it would be the perfect knife in the back to the Republican Party that has rejected him, and the perfect way to ensure that the interests that the Bushes have always represented continue to be well-represented in Washington.