Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jeb Bush is No Longer the Frontrunner

The 2016 presidential election cycle started with what promised to be the weirdest of elections-a rematch of sorts between two of the biggest names in American politics.  The last time we had a presidential rematch was in 1956, when President Ike Eisenhower crushed Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson four years after he'd done the same exact things (learn from your mistakes, Democrats).  2016 of course wouldn't be a literal presidential rematch, but it could be in name-only.  That's because 24 years after the fact, we have Jeb Bush (son of President George HW Bush) and Hillary Clinton (wife of President Bill Clinton) hunting for the presidential nomination two decades after their respective relatives sparred for a term in the White House.  For Jeb Bush in particular, it has to be assumed that there's a bit of family pride at stake here.  Yes, his brother George got a bit of revenge on the Clintons when he defeated Al Gore, Bill's running mate, but the Arkansas family is still 1-0 in Bush v. Clinton elections, a fact that I'm sure he wishes he could tie up.  Throughout the election cycle it has seemed like both Bush and Clinton, despite some missteps, would ultimately gain their party's nomination.  Both hail from the predominant family in their respective parties, both have access to nearly unlimited funds, and both have universal name recognition and deeply loyal factions of support within their parties.  Despite the rises of people like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, I have maintained throughout the primary that both remain the favorites for the party's respective nominations.

That seems to be over now, however, for one of these candidates, and it's not necessarily the one that you'd think based on this morning's headlines.  Yes, Hillary Clinton has another email hiccup that Chris Cillizza will surely salivate over, but it's actually Jeb Bush that I feel has finally moved out of the driver's seat in his election seat and sits perched at second place for most likely candidates to win the nomination.  The reason for this is threefold, and we'll get there below:

1. John Boehner's Resignation

I am well-aware that I haven't discussed the Speaker's shock resignation, but everything that needs to be said about it seems to have already been said, so I'll skip ahead here to some longer-ranging issues rather than on the short-term of who is going to gain, what's going to happen (there are a thousand articles about that anyway and if you're following me on Twitter you'll already know my trivia about the resignation).  However, Boehner's resignation and the likely ascension of the comparatively inexperienced Kevin McCarthy surely helps the narrative of younger candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in comparison to Bush.  The Bush Family may have little involvement with Boehner, but he represents a similar sort of old-guard that Jeb Bush was hoping to tap into for the nomination.  Look at recent Republican nominees for the presidency and you'll see why Bush was so confident he could pull this off: you have had, since Ronal Reagan won in 1980, the Vice President, the Senate Majority Leader, the governor-son of a president, a respected war veteran and longtime US Senator, and the governor-son of a governor who had been in GOP politics for two decades as the party's challenger.  Stature, prestige, and respect for experience are all there in those nominations-the GOP has consistently nominated men of "aristocratic" backgrounds (Bushx2, Romney) or who have toiled in the political field for decades waiting for their turn (Dole, McCain).  The likes of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Mike Huckabee tried to break up this cycle, but were never successful, and as a result without someone like Mitt Romney in the race, Bush was the clear frontrunner based on past logic.

This isn't the case with Boehner's resignation though-this is a clear repudiation of tradition.  Despite what John Boehner may have said, he didn't decide his resignation yesterday and wouldn't have given up his boyhood dream job in the middle of a fight if he didn't want to avoid a loss.  You don't get to this level of politics without having a hunger to stay at the top.  John Boehner resigned because he knew he had to-he might have survived a coup attempt, but he definitely would have gone into it unknown, and would have been badly bruised as a result of it.  The fact that Boehner, the titular head of the GOP for at least a few more weeks, was forced out of his chair by upstart Republicans shows a clear shifting of the guard, and while those are extremely rare in American politics at this level, they do happen (just ask Hillary Clinton, who probably wakes up every morning wondering why a junior senator from Illinois is serving her second term in office).

2. The Polls Have Officially Become a Problem

Jeb's position in the polls has been a problem for months, but not in a really tangible way.  Yes, at this point he's currently positioned in fourth, but the reality is that the three frontrunners have too much baggage to make it through the fall with these kinds of numbers.  Donald Trump should be rightfully frustrated by the media's insistence that he's losing steam despite still being largely in the lead (Hillary Clinton can relate, Donald), but it's pretty clear that Trump will need to learn a new trick to stay in the race and that's not his forte.  Ben Carson is in second place, but has proven with the extra limelight that he can't handle the heat (the Muslim for president thing is going to get him avalanches of bad press from a media not wanting to fuel another Trump).  Carly Fiorina is the new candidate in the spotlight and as a former CEO she has the sort of surface-level polish that the media hungers for when rewarding the winner's title of debates, but her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, lack of experience, and occasional lapses in judgment (the Planned Parenthood moment had tinges of Sarah Palin, a comparison that no female Republican can risk encountering), make her seem more like one of the Herman Cain-style flashes in the pan of 2012.  As a result, fourth place has been a fine position for Jeb Bush because he hasn't been losing any ground to candidates who could actually beat him.

That's no longer the case.  Several recent polls show Bush behind or tied with Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, which is a fire alarm of a situation.  Cruz and especially Rubio are acceptable options for the Republicans as a Plan B, and Bush knows it.  Bush's plan has been to be the only option in the face of the Trump/Carson/Fiorina clown car, but if you throw sitting senators into the mix you suddenly have a race where people could go a different direction.  Which brings me to...

3. The Republicans Have Other Options Now

Bush's name, family connections, money, and stature are all very important, and keep him in this race.  He's a close second place still, in my opinion, because as a result of these assets he'll be able to react once the Trump dust clears and he knows who his opponent for actual votes are, a luxury no other candidate in the contest has-everyone else has to be the actual candidate or else Bush's machine will destroy them.  The problem for Bush is that in the wake of Scott Walker (one of his principle foes for the nomination) dropping out, it wasn't the former Florida governor but instead Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who has picked up his team, donors, and middling poll numbers.  Rubio has long been the second choice of many people in the party, and if a lot of candidates in the race drop out it might not be Bush who benefits but the runner-up gaining by default.  This could be a problem if the struggling campaigns of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and John Kasich soon come to a halt.

It's worth noting that Rubio has performed well in the debates (better than Bush), has been doing everything he's supposed to do in the invisible primary (he's only recently come under Trump's purview, and unlike Bush and Walker it is happening when Trump appears to be fighting from a position of weakness rather than strength), and has a lot of his own assets that Bush simply doesn't.  He's got a compelling background, is a new face with a serious demeanor, is handsome with a picturesque family, and can argue that he's the voice of the new GOP in a way that Jeb Bush will never be able to do.  Marco Rubio obviously doesn't want the comparison to be made too often publicly, but he's clearly the Barack Obama in this race to Jeb Bush's Hillary Clinton.  Rubio is also the better option for the general election-while Hillary Clinton is down she's by no means in the same position of Jeb (where her position as the frontrunner has disintegrated), and she has been rooting for Bush as her challenger mostly because his wealth, last name, and association with the past will nullify her own liabilities on those issues.  This all adds up to a situation where the media is saying Bush must take on Trump, but any pragmatist looking at this race sees Bush's frontrunner status slipping to the man he mentored for many years in Florida.  If Jeb Bush wants to get that rematch that seemed so assured in January, he had best find a way to defeat Marco Rubio before Donald Trump implodes.  Otherwise this could be a repeat of 2008.

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