Republican elites felled by horrible new sickness: Jeb Bush fever!

Rich donors are getting ready to draft another Bush and thumb their noses at the party’s far-right base. Good luck!

Published March 31, 2014 4:01PM (EDT)

Jeb Bush                                        (AP/Matt Rourke)
Jeb Bush (AP/Matt Rourke)

Can the Republican Party base catch Jeb Bush fever? They may have no choice. According to the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, GOP donors panicked over Gov. Chris Christie’s implosion are going all out to draft the long-ago Florida governor to run for president in 2016.

Jeb Bush is certainly tanned and rested, if not ready: He left the governor’s office in 2006, and has done little since then besides work for disgraced and defunct Lehman Brothers and write a book that reversed his once progressive stance on immigration reform. Rucker and Costa quote a former Mitt Romney bundler saying the “vast majority” of Romney’s top 100 donors would like to see a Bush run.

“He’s the most desired candidate out there,” said Brian Ballard, a member of the Romney 2012 and McCain 2008 national finance committees. “Everybody that I know is excited about it.”

So to summarize: Bush hasn’t run for office in 14 years; his wife, Columba, is known to be unenthusiastic about a presidential run; his own mother doesn’t think he should do it; and in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 50 percent of registered voters say they "definitely would not" vote for him – but the wise men of the party want to draft him anyway. This should all work out fine.

There’s great reporting in the Costa-Rucker piece, but there’s one odd note: They claim that “conservative leaders and longtime operatives say they consider Bush the GOP’s brightest hope to win back the White House.” But they don’t quote any “conservative leaders” from the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Instead we get Henry Kissinger praising Bush’s foreign policy bona fides. “He is someone who is experienced, moderate and thoughtful,” Kissinger says, of a man who’s never held national office or made a foreign policy decision (besides kowtowing to Florida’s right-wing Cuban exile community.) It’s clear Bush is being framed as the moderate alternative to the alarming isolationism of Sen. Rand Paul and the full-tilt anti-government crazy of Sen. Ted Cruz, two Tea Party favorites.

I’m not a Tea Partyer, obviously, but I have some sympathy for the GOP base, as Republican money men try to find the next Mitt Romney: a pro-business rich guy with some formerly moderate positions that could conceivably appeal to swing voters, but who is too cowed by the GOP base to actually articulate any of those positions.

Because he speaks fluent Spanish and his wife was born in Mexico, it’s believed he will help the party with Latinos. Yet in his 2013 book “Immigration Wars,” Bush adapted his long-standing support for comprehensive immigration reform to demand that those here illegally return home before pursuing citizenship – which put him to the right of Republicans like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham. “This proposal caught me off guard, and it undercuts what we’re trying to do,” Graham told the Washington Post. It didn't mollify right-wing immigration reform enemies, who still accuse Bush of favoring "amnesty."

To his credit, he publicly opposed the government shutdown led by Cruz and supported by Paul. He’s made some enemies on the right by defending President Obama’s Common Core education standards, which are actually opposed by a rare left-right coalition and supported by wealthy elites in both parties. But he opposes Medicaid expansion, placing him to the right of Christie and another 2016 hopeful, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. That’s cynical and cruel, and as the former governor of Florida, Bush knows better. Or ought to. But it’s one way to pander to the far right.

Except so far, the far right isn’t having it. Even before the Rucker-Costa piece, longtime conservative strategist Richard Viguerie wrote in his forthcoming book: “No matter who else gets in the Republican presidential primaries, Jeb Bush will remain the ‘great white hope’ of the Republican establishment. In addition to supporting all of their major policy goals from Common Core to amnesty for illegal aliens, a Bush candidacy also holds out the hope of millions of dollars in consulting business and lucrative lobbying contracts for a small but powerful coterie of Bush family supporters and acolytes.”

To be fair, some progressive Democrats worry the last statement would be true of a Hillary Clinton presidency as well. But though Clinton will have to face the skepticism of some progressives if she runs in 2016, she will have a lot of progressives in her corner to help her do so. It remains to be seen whether Bush will have the same ballast on his right – and the Costa-Rucker piece doesn’t produce much evidence that he will. “He has taken small steps to assert his conservative bona fides,” they write, but their example is a little discordant: “Last spring, Bush hosted a dozen high-profile conservatives, including writers for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, at a dinner at Washington’s Willard InterContinental Hotel, where he defended Common Core standards.”

That’s not exactly a Tea Party rally.

Still, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour gets credit for the dumbest statement in the Post piece. “The ‘Bush fatigue’ question is always there. If his name was Jeb Brown instead of Jeb Bush, he’d be the front-runner.”

Um, no, Haley. If his name was Jeb Brown, he’d be selling used cars in Henderson, Nev., not dining privately with Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas as Bush did last Thursday. This country has never been a meritocracy, but Jeb Bush fever marks a new low. The fact that top GOP money men want to make sure that we alternate Democratic presidents with rich guys named Bush shows that the so-called establishment wing of the Republican Party is out of ideas, energy and leaders.

By Joan Walsh