In the early months of the election year, a polarizing president with a lackluster approval rating bided his time as the opposition party unraveled. Its nominating fight dissolved into chaos as the establishment front-runner collapsed, and an insurgent with a talent for galvanizing his party’s base surged, despite persistent fears about his electoral appeal beyond the party’s hardcore. A protracted primary fight ensued, with the insurgent and the party’s resistant establishment eviscerating each other for months; by the time it ran its course, a president who seemed imminently beatable was ahead by double digits. The story ends with that same president winning by an historic margin over a party that rejected its recent past in favor of a dangerously uncertain future.
This is a recounting of the 1972 election season. If it has the feel of a premonition, it’s because Republicans look dangerously on the verge of repeating the demolition derby that so weakened Democrats that year. Mitt Romney may be a better-constructed front-runner than Ed Muskie, but he is still a flawed contender whose candidacy seems at odds with his party’s mood and whose own half-answers have made his wealth seem shadowy and amoral. Newt Gingrich may be a far better-known quantity than the hapless George McGovern, but he still seems, like McGovern, more suited to the task of revolution than political persuasion. Republicans are, and should be, very worried.
Enter the last dream date that Republicans may have at their disposal. His name is Jeb Bush, and this time, there is a feasibility around the idea that seemed unthinkable months ago.
To be sure, the Jeb scenario will need more instability in order to flourish. The likeliest path involves Gingrich’s momentum carrying him through Florida; the February races in Arizona and Michigan dividing between Romney and Gingrich; Romney rebounding in March in moderate-leaning midwestern states such as Illinois and Wisconsin; Gingrich winning easily in the Deep South on Super Tuesday and Texas in early April, with Romney proving equally strong in New York and the rest of the Atlantic coastline, while states like Ohio and Indiana fail to resolve the split.
Imagine that California’s ultimate showdown leaves Gingrich with the slightest of edges, but with Romney remaining viable and in possession of a broader geographic base, far more internal support from GOP leadership, and a substantial chunk of delegates. To stop Gingrich, Romney might have no practical choice but to offer to throw his support to Bush, whose popularity would also implode Gingrich’s slim plurality.
Not one bit of it is implausible. Arguably, a deadlock is an entirely realistic outcome in a race where Romney’s institutional edges are considerable, but his vulnerabilities and Gingrich’s raw campaign skills are more than enough to offset that advantage. It is also all too likely that the result of a protracted bout would be two candidates so bruised that neither remains competitive with Obama. If so, there will be a sense of panic, and it is not hard to conceive that Romney could come under intense pressure to sacrifice himself to avert a November catastrophe.
The less probable outcome is that Jeb Bush would abandon a year of disclaimers to accept a draft in a brokered convention. But there are two reasons he might. The first is that an Obama landslide would devastate conservatism enough that it might be irreparable for a generation. One doesn’t have to subscribe to Gingrich’s Manichean rhetoric to concede that an Obama sweep would, for the first time in 76 years, institute government-centered, redistributionist economics as the country’s central governing philosophy. It would be, after all, the agenda that Obama and congressional Democrats had campaigned on, in contrast to the deliberately muted, ideologically vague platforms that elected Carter, Clinton, and Obama in 2008; or the growth-oriented, business friendly liberalism that JFK and LBJ embodied.
Second, Bush would have a pathway to victory in November. His brand of reform-oriented conservatism might actually be his party’s only pathway: Unlike Romney, whose leadership of Massachusetts produced one signature achievement — a hodgepodge of a health-care law that he likely wishes he could take back — Bush’s legacy is an issue that Republicans ought to own but are ignoring, education reform. He also turned Florida into a national laboratory for controlling health-care costs and reining in medical tort liability, both soft spots in Obama’s record.
At the same time, Bush has revealed a capacity for coalition-building that has eluded Gingrich. He is a hero of the conservative base who has had remarkable electoral appeal to Jewish and Hispanic voters. He combines support for a modified version of the DREAM Act with backing stronger border security — a middle ground that is both tough-minded and assimilationist — and happens to be entering his fourth decade of marriage to a Hispanic woman. It goes without saying that Bush gives Republicans the best shot of removing Florida from the Democratic column, and winning states with a strong Latino presence such as Arizona and Colorado.
The fact is that Jeb Bush bent Florida, a famously interest-group-ridden state, in a rightward direction; that’s an accomplishment Romney can’t begin to claim vis-à-vis Massachusetts. Bush is not just an authentic movement conservative, but a groundbreaker on an array of issues that drive votes, such as accountability for teachers and reining in the costs of private health insurance. While his record has blemishes that Democrats would exploit, from his stint in the Eighties lobbying for southern-Florida business interests to his ill-timed tenure at Lehman Brothers in 2007, this Bush is an adept, articulate campaigner who is unlikely to be tied in knots defending his history. Also, the statute of limitations seems to have expired on the ugliest sentiments around the last Bush presidency.
Jeb Bush should measure his reluctance against the risks looming for his party and, potentially, his country. The fact is that his party could be staring at an unavoidable disaster unless, in the interests of saving it, its best candidate comes out of retirement.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.