John J. Miller has a cover story in the new issue of National Review that’s a compelling portrait of the accomplishments of Jeb Bush. Four years after leaving the Florida governor’s mansion, he remains one of the most impressive Republican politicians in the country, a formidable policy mind with the political chops to drive conservative reforms even out of office. So why isn’t he running for president? Bush told Miller what he’s said to others, too — he won’t run in 2012, but he’ll consider 2016. This is a mistake. Bush should run now for at least eight reasons:
1) It’s a wide-open field for a nomination that’s worth having. Rarely do you get such a convergence of a beatable incumbent president with a wide-open field to challenge him. Obama is slightly below 50 percent in the polls, with a real weakness in the middle of the country, and he’s saddled with a recovery that has yet to produce substantial job growth. Yet there is no true frontrunner in the race to challenge him. It’s hard to imagine an environment better suited for a heavyweight like Jeb to make a run.
2) 2016 is too late I. By 2016, Jeb will have been out of office ten years. No doubt he will have made many contributions to the cause in the interim, but by then his main credential — his governorship and its accomplishments — will seem like yesterday’s news. Right now he has the feel of an elder statesman of the party while his time in office is still fresh.
3) 2016 is too late II. By 2016, a bumper crop of Republican talent will be poised to storm the national stage. Marco Rubio not only will be the hot new thing out of Florida, he’ll be seasoned. Chris Christie will be ready. A host of senators and governors — freshly minted in the 2010 elections, so it’s too soon for them to run now — will be ready to go. Jeb will not be such a predominant figure in such a robust field. The crop of prospective GOP candidates this time reflects the downdraft in Republican fortunes in 2006 and 2008. Jeb would loom all the larger for it.
4) The Bush rehabilitation has begun. George W. Bush is not exactly popular, but two years of Obama have taken the edge off W.-hatred, and he’s risen from the depths of his unpopularity near the end of his presidency. Gallup had a poll in December that had Bush’s approval rating very slightly above President Obama’s. Bush’s book, Decision Points, and the accompanying media tour were successes. In 2008, Jeb’s association with his brother would have been an absolute killer. That’s not true anymore. The controversies that made the Bush years so venomous have faded, and — partly through the miracle of the accelerated news cycle — 2000–2008 already feels somewhat distant.
5) Jeb will still be a Bush in 2016. There’s no doubt that it will always be awkward for Jeb to be the third Bush; it will always have a dynastic feel about it. But that will remain as true in 2016. If Jeb runs in four years, after Obama presumably wins a second term in 2012, he will still be vying to be the third Republican president in a row who’s a Bush. Waiting until 2016 won’t make that fact any less odd.
6) He’s not just another Bush. Jeb is different from his patrician dad and different from his thoroughly Texan brother. As soon as people see him on the national stage, they’ll realize he’s his own person and has to be taken on his own terms.
7) Jeb can unite the party. Jeb probably has a better chance to unite the establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP than anyone else, certainly a better chance than Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney would seem to have at this juncture. The establishment would presumably flock to Jeb, while he’d have a record of solid conservative accomplishment to sell to the conservative base. Some tea partiers will have zero interest in another Bush, and Jeb will take his lumps on immigration (at NR, we’ll look forward to administering some of them, and trying to change his mind). It’s a very volatile environment, and were he to run, much would obviously depend on how he actually campaigned. But he would stand a good chance of avoiding a damaging division in the party.
8) Waiting is almost always a mistake. It’s an axiom of presidential politics that you have to run when you have the opening, even if it seems “too soon.” This is why Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were elected president and Mario Cuomo never was. Jeb’s opening is now — “too soon” after his brother’s presidency, “too soon” into his life as an ex-governor — and it will probably never quite be there again.
In short, if Jeb feels a call to run for president, it has to be 2012, not 2016.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.