When Indiana congressman Mike Pence decided to announce recently that he wasn’t going to run for the Republican nomination for president — but possibly for governor of his state — you would have thought, from the reaction in some quarters, that he had committed the ultimate act of betrayal. At least one senior longtime Republican political aide thought he had somehow abandoned his principles — and his country — by not taking a chance on the presidential race. Folks who were behind drafting him for president were in a deep funk. “Seriously, who else do we have?” one asked me. “Unless something miraculous happens and we get an unexpected gift candidate.”
Another GOP stalwart agreed: “Sad to say, but at a time when we need someone with guts like Reagan in ’76 challenging an incumbent president of his own party, or Rubio staying in the Florida Senate race when he was 40 points down to Crist, we get political calculation and personal ambition.” Poor Mike Pence! After all, the congressman has young kids and other options, and the presidency was a gamble.
While I appreciate these hard-working political veterans’ early assessments and their efforts to draft fresh candidates, I think they’re down way too early. It’s a big country. Some candidates are ready and willing to run. Others have very familiar names.
One of the latter happens to be named Bush. Later this month on MSNBC, host Chris Matthews will host a special presenting Bill Clinton as “President of the World,” which will discuss his global charity work since leaving office. In that spirit, consider this my pitch for a special on Fox News: “Jeb Bush, Governor of the Country,” a model of conservative leadership in and out of office. In his post-gubernatorial life, the former chief executive of Florida — a bit of a policy wonk and an activist on education — has been working with school officials, businessmen, and policymakers to translate his Florida achievement into progress for our schools nationwide.
At National Review, we currently have a cover story on the man, calling him a “can-do conservative reformer.” That applies to his time as governor as well as his time since he left office in 2007. Education reform is a signature issue and passion of his. And as John J. Miller recounts in his piece for NR, Bush led Florida from the bottom of the states in education rankings to the top five. “Taxes and regulation are important, but long-term prosperity is all about the quality of education,” he tells my colleague. On his multi-pronged, difficult approach, one education expert comments: “It shows that compassion is not about how much money you spend but about the results you get — and these are great results.” Conservatism in action. Conservatism with results.
Now Jeb Bush isn’t quite in the willing mode at the moment when it comes to a presidential run. Although I know at least one member of his family who’s encouraging of the idea, his mother, the former first lady, recently mused that the American people may be “Bushed out” on the presidential level.
But the truth of the matter is, in conversations with folks from Washington and grassroots activists, his name keeps coming up. “If only,” they’ll say. If only his name weren’t Bush. A third president Bush would just be overkill. It’s an anti-elitism thing. It’s supposedly a fatigue thing. But even George W. Bush is more popular than he was upon leaving office. He’s a bestselling author: As Sarah Palin’s detractors love to point out, he even kept her second book, America by Heart, from the top slot on the New York Times bestseller list spot for weeks with his Decision Points.
One longtime fan with a close working knowledge of the former governor suggests he could be talked into at least the number-two slot on a ticket: “I think he’d definitely take the VP nod.” He’d be a hometown favorite in 2012, when the Republican convention will be held in Florida, “and he’d carry the state and be an asset with Catholics and Hispanics and would help the Republicans a lot on the fundraising and policy side.” (Interestingly, in that light, he recently told CNN “you betcha” when asked if he’d support a Sarah Palin run. Among other things, give him points for recognizing the boost she gives the GOP: The woman motivates.)
I’m not necessarily going to be in a funk if Jeb doesn’t change his mind to-run — because he’s not the only qualified conservative with real-life experience. The arguably most organized might be former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has hired staff in New Hampshire. Listen to him any Friday morning, when he is sitting in the guest-host chair on Bill Bennett’s Salem radio show, and you are reminded how smart he is about policy and Washington, after having successfully led the effort to reform welfare under President Bill Clinton, as a freshman senator.
A successful record won’t be a liability on the road to the White House in 2012. Which is why former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is seriously looking at running again, despite much-discussed real and perceived liabilities. He’s got both business and chief-executive political experience — valuable commodities, especially right now, especially in 2012.
There is talent out there. There is leadership. Don’t be quick to dismiss a perfectly qualified and impressive candidate. Question the conventional. And while that someone “miraculous” could appear, beware the “wow” candidate. Records matter. Success matters. Workmanship matters. With those credentials, a familiar name ought not be a liability.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.