New York Times reporter John Harwood wondered why a conservative would favor Mitt Romney over Jeb Bush. It was a good question. Jeb Bush has always seemed to me to be a more natural politician than Romney (though less of a natural politician than George W. Bush.) Jeb Bush also seems to me to be more of a conviction politician, while Romney is almost a parody of a transactional politician (Charlie Crist being the actual parody). The irony is that Jeb Bush’s inclination toward conviction politics might be his great weakness in the Republican primaries.
Jeb Bush hasn’t run for office since 2002. He has been marinating in the views of the Republican donor class. More importantly, Bush seems to have internalized the Republican establishment’s interpretation of why Republicans did so badly in 2012. Republicans needed to get on board the upfront amnesty train in order to be more inclusive.
I think that many conservatives who are hostile to Bush tend to think of him as some kind of phony. I don’t think that is the case. My sense is that Bush has allied with the Republican donor class because, to the extent the views of the donor class diverge from those of the median Republican, Bush generally, and sincerely agrees with the donor class. He favors upfront legalization of unauthorized immigrants because he thinks it is important both politically and morally. Bush’s belief in common core and federal government-driven education reform was an approach that used to have significant support from conservatives (though always some conservative critics too). On these and other issues, Bush is a perfectly decent conservative. He is just the kind of conservative who has the policy preferences and priorities of the Chamber of Commerce – and has them as a matter of conviction.
Meanwhile, Romney has spent almost a decade trying to master the worldview of Republican presidential primary voters. The results have sometimes been darkly amusing (“severely conservative”), but Romney has done a pretty good job. He knows, and is willing to say, what Republican primary voters want to hear.
Think about Rick Perry. You would think that Perry was ideologically much closer than Romney to the worldview of the average Republican voter. Perry also had the much more successful record as governor (no Romneycare and all that). Romney was still able to find, and ruthlessly exploit the gaps between the views of Rick Perry and the views of the Republican primary voter. Bush can expect the same treatment on everything he has said over the last ten years.
Bush is probably better prepared to run for president today than Perry was in the 2012 cycle, and Bush will also know the Romney playbook. On the other hand, Bush already has the reputation as being the relative moderate in the race and all the mainstream media coverage of Bush as some kind of humane, evolved Republican who will bring tolerance and enlightenment to the savages who vote in Republican primaries is not going to do him any favors. People had to be convinced to dislike Perry. There is also the question of whether Bush has the flexibility to move quickly enough and far enough to close the policy gaps between his current views and those of the median Republican primary voter. Would he rather be right (the Chamber of Commerce version of the right) than president?