Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bush 2016

It is poor form among the chattering class to speculate about the election AFTER this election, but if history is any guide (and it usually is), do not at all be surprised if the Presidential nominee selected at the 2016 GOP Convention is John Ellis "Jeb" Bush.  A third Bush carrying the presidential banner fits neatly into the manner in which the Republicans select their nominees and will represent the greatest likelihood of taking back the White House if President Obama is re-elected in 2012.

While there are no certainties in politics, modern presidential elections are actually far more predictable than the vagaries of the primary season suggest.  For example, one party holding the White House for three consecutive terms is rare.  Since 1952, the White House changed hands every eight years with the exception of the 1980 and 1988 elections, the former being an outlier itself (the first time a sitting incumbent running for re-election had been beaten since 1932) and the latter perhaps explicable for reasons including the poor choice of challenger (Gov. Michael Dukakis).  While two recent presidents seeking second terms have been denied that honor (Ford is not counted here as he was not elected president in 1972), that too is uncommon, having occurred just two times other times in the 20th century - in 1912, President Taft ran a weak third to the winner, Woodrow Wilson, and the "Bull Moose" candidate, former President Theodore Roosevelt and, as noted above, 1932, when President Hoover, impotent in the face of the Great Depression, was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt.

While it is true that President Obama is faced with a limp economy, nagging unemployment and the ever present risk of an unforeseen event completely scrambling the race, he has two things going for him that are strongly predictive of success - incumbency and money.  Incumbency is discussed above, but his ability to raise enormous sums of money for his re-election cannot be understated.  The President raised nearly $750 million in 2008 and had so much money that toward the end of the campaign, granular level ads were being placed in video games and high level spending was done on a 30 minute commercial in prime time in the days before the election.  That money also paid for a sophisticated get out the vote campaign, detailed targeting of voters and of course, more TV, Internet and radio ads, messaging and outreach than was ever done by any other candidate in American history.  

There is no reason to think that the same will not happen again in 2012.  The President may do a mediocre job of defending his record behind the podium in the White House briefing room, but out on the stump, he's a very effective campaigner, has a substantial record of accomplishment to run on, an intransigent foe to run against (Congress) and a likely opponent easily defined as both a venal corporate raider and finger in the wind flip-flopper who has taken radically different positions on a number of issues in the service of his political career.  While Willard Romney's Republican foes have been more interested in defining themselves as his conservative alternative in lieu of tackling him directly, the President will have no such limitation or restriction.  Indeed, what conservatives and "tea party" voters will find out, thanks to those hundreds of millions of dollars the President will have to spend, is that Governor Romney's political slipperiness is transparently easy to define and his shifting positions on issues like abortion, union rights, health care and his tenure as a buyout specialist at Bain Capital will not play well the longer the campaign goes and the more advertising time is piled against him.  The President may not win an easy election in 2012, but he is likely to win.

Which brings us to Jeb Bush.  Conservatives, if nothing else, understand the long view of politics.  While Romney may end up being sacrificed at that altar, there is some logic behind such a decision.  If conservatives are unhappy with the prospect of an Obama second term, they also know that their success in stonewalling him during his first term, combined with the likelihood of a divided Congress, (even if the Democrats take the House, Senate Republicans have created clear precedent that they can and will filibuster anything/everything to death in the Senate, so even if the Democrats retain control (itself a questionable supposition) absent a change in the chamber's rules, more gridlock will occur) is likely to make any achievements by President Obama modest.  

Using this political calculus, 2016 will be a far more hospitable environment for Republicans.  Like 2000, when deep antagonism toward President Clinton was a factor in mobilizing Republicans, the vitriol with which many on the right view President Obama will drive turnout, but what will be needed is a "brand name" that can unite the disparate parts of the Republican coalition and appeal to enough independents to bring the GOP back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  While there is a "deep bench" of Republicans who wake up every day looking in the mirror humming "Hail to the Chief" thinking they can inhabit that role, the reality is that like a slew of blue chip prospects, many, if not all, won't pan out.  Today's flavor of the month may be completely forgotten (or voted out of office) in the time between 2012 and 2016.  Further, the nominating process of the Republican party disfavors first time candidates with one glaring exception - "name brand recognition."  Since 1952, Republicans invariably go for one of three candidates - (1) the prior loser making a second (or third) attempt at the nomination - Nixon (1968), Reagan (1980), McCain (2008) (and likely Romney in 2012); (2) the incumbent Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1960 as sitting VP and 1972), Ford (sort of in 1976), Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (as sitting VP in 1988 and for re-election in 1992) and George W. Bush (2004); or (3) the "name brand" - Eisenhower (1952) or George W. Bush (2000).  Indeed, in the 15 presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, only Barry Goldwater was able to get the nomination of the GOP as a first-time candidate without being either the General who won World War II or the well-funded son of a former President.  

Bush has several clear assets.  First, while the Bush family name may not be held in high regard generally, within the Republican party, it is still the gold standard.  That means fundraising, staff and the infrastructure that Jeb Bush will need to run for President will be there for him.  While the country at-large may not miss Jeb's brother, the reality is that their dad received just 37.5% of the vote in 1992, the lowest for a major party candidate since 1972 and the lowest for an incumbent since 1912; however, the country sorta, kinda elected his son eight years later.  Republicans hungry to take back the White House, as they were in 2000, will be more inclined to support a person they perceive to be a "sure thing," like the conservative, but thoughtful former two-term Governor of a major swing state, than anyone else.

Moreover, one of Bush's other benefits is that his term as Florida Governor ended in 2007, before all the economic calamities that befell the country and will, in its way, be the "record" he defines himself  by but with the ancillary benefit of not being able to be tarred with anemic growth or incendiary social issue policies that some Republican governors have instituted recently.  When you put these two ideas together, what you have is a known commodity in politics that Republicans tend to like.  Someone who can articulate a message, has a record that moderates its profile (Jeb, like his brother George, did work on issues like immigration and education that appeal to middle class voters) and can raise a lot of money to run for President.  Up and coming politicians like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence might be attractive in the abstract, but they have present-day policies and politics that either will not play with the broad middle of the country or simply do not have the gravitas or experience that the GOP favors in its nominees.

While there are many things that might happen between now and November 2016 (not the least of which might be an Obama loss), all other things being equal, the GOP should be prepared for the third coming of the Bush clan (and maybe even a second Clinton/Bush battle, but that's another story ...)  

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