At Newsweek, Eleanor Clift reports:
Watching the Republican candidates elbowing each other for position on the right is a classic Washington spectator sport. Nobody quite measures up, and they all look a little craven trying. The prize they’re seeking: the evangelical vote, which is crucial to success in the GOP primaries. Republicans can’t win the White House without them, and social conservatives so far have been lukewarm toward everybody in the field.
There’s one politician the Christian right could get excited about: John Ellis (Jeb) Bush. But he’s not running—surely in part because the Bush brand has been so badly tarnished by the Iraq misadventure. A handoff from brother George would have been easy—if only the president had stayed focused on finding Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan rather than rushing off to invade Iraq. But for his brother’s mess, Jeb would be a formidable candidate.
He’s still a likely contender at some point—maybe even as a vice presidential pick in ’08. He can raise money, he has a Mexican-born wife who could help with California, and he can deliver Florida. The restoration is premised on the Republican nominee needing the credibility with the religious right that Jeb could bring. The Bush family seems to be moving its chips to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Several of Jeb’s gubernatorial staffers have signed on with Romney, and Jeb’s sister, Doro Bush Koch, is cohosting a fund-raiser for him. Mom and Dad are reportedly telling friends he’s a fine man and the class act in the race. With front runner John McCain faltering and Rudy Giuliani an unlikely fit with Republican primary voters, Romney looks like the Bush Dynasty’s best bet.
Jeb’s ambition, his intellect and his tenacity have not dimmed. Combine these personal characteristics with his ability to raise money and you’ve got a potent political force, says S.V. Dáte, the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post and author of “Jeb: America’s Next Bush.” The book is not particularly flattering. Dáte says Bush governed with the openness and transparency of the Politburo; that his tax cuts went to the top 4.7 percent of Floridians and that he created the lowest number of jobs of any governor since 1970. Despite that record, polls show a consistent high regard for him, especially among social conservatives who remember his tireless efforts to sustain Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose survival in a vegetative state—in the face of her husband’s efforts to end life supports because of the grim prognosis—became a cause célèbre for the religious right.
The younger Bush was the one the family thought would become president, but that calculus went out the window when Jeb lost his initial bid for governor in Florida, and George was elected in Texas. Dáte says he wonders what would have happened if both brothers had won that year. George is seven years older but is otherwise out-classed by Jeb, the intellect of the family and, at 6 feet 4, a significant physical presence. Would they have run against each other in the primary? Would there have been a playoff game of horseshoes?
In Washington on a promotional tour, Dáte took questions at Politics & Prose, a bookstore in northwest Washington, where key chains counting down the hours, the minutes and the seconds left in Bush’s term sold out over the holidays. Dáte began with the top five e-mails he got in response to an article he wrote for The Washington Post speculating what a Jeb Bush presidency would be like in its seventh year, if the family plan had worked like it was supposed to. Many readers thought he was endorsing Jeb because he said that the younger brother wouldn’t have screwed up hurricane relief. Dáte believes Jeb would have followed the same siren song of the neocons into war. But once in Iraq, “Jeb would have been less prone to botch the job through inattention and cronyism,” Dáte says.
The thought of another Bush headed for the presidency struck most readers as preposterous. “The single most idiotic article I’ve read in The Washington Post,” said one. “Is this column a humiliating payback for a lost wager?” asked another. “The Bush family (expletive deleted) the world. I have a Colorado spruce in my front yard smarter than you.”
But the author is undeterred by the skepticism. He says it is “inevitable” Jeb will run for president, though he admits ’08 is problematic. Still, if the troops start to come home by the end of this year and the president’s approval ratings start climbing, who knows? Dáte states in The Washington Post piece that John McCain swung by Tallahassee in December 2005 to sound Jeb out about the prospect of running with him, and adds that any Republican candidate would be foolish not to put Jeb on the shortlist. Evangelicals make up a quarter of the country, according to some estimates—and as much as 35 to 45 percent of Republican voters in some states. If anybody has a lock on them, it’s Jeb.
The actual campaign doesn't begin for a long time.
But for an election cycle to have begun so early, and to overheat this quickly, tells me that there are going to be several major shake-outs before the campaigns seriously get off the ground and under way. And two years is a very long time for a vice-president with heart problems and clots in his leg to resist subpoenas and investigations. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Bush family has several contingency plans at the ready, one which calls for their hand-chosen heir (Romney) to replace an ailing (or deceased) Cheney just months before the election.
For that leg up, Romney might then turn around and tap Jeb Bush to run on the Republican ticket with him. It would be so typically 'Bush' to slide Jeb into national politics that way, given that he wouldn't have a chance in hell of getting into the oval office through the front door after the mess his brother has made of the world.
That's just one possibility out of many. Like I said, two years is an eternity in politics.