Rich Republicans' impossible decision: Which terrible candidate do we rally behind, Mitt or Jeb?

Rich donors are hoping either Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush runs in 2016. Why do they like either of them?

Published September 26, 2014 12:55PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)

There is a pulse, barely registrable but a pulse nevertheless, to the political career of Willard Mitt Romney. We have relentlessly mocked the idea of Mitt Romney running for president for a third time in 2016 -- almost as much as Romney himself, in interview after interview, has mocked it. But there are people out there, people who aren't very smart about politics but remain influential because they are rich, who are determined to keep the patient alive. Has the idea of the "Romney Juggernaut" returning to competitive form for another go at it now breached the Romney family's thinking?

Somewhere among the 2 million or so blanket denials that Romney himself has made about whether he's considering a run, there have been a whole two (2) instances in which the door has creaked open, if you're going to interpret it generously. We had the Hugh Hewitt interview a couple of months ago, in which the No. 1 Romney superfan Hugh Hewitt baited Romney into saying "circumstances can change." Hewitt had constructed an elaborate set of circumstances that would have to change -- something along the lines of every other potential GOP presidential candidate suddenly collapsing after which the country would demand Mitt Romney as its savior. Well, sure, maybe, whatever, Hugh!...??

But the comments from Ann Romney on Fox News this week were slightly more door-open-y.

CAVUTO: One scenario out there, Mrs. Romney, is that Jeb Bush doesn't run after all, and your husband will size up the landscape and that a lot of his supporters, past and present, said, you have the name recognition, you have the Reagan example of the third time was the charm for him, and that it's been done before.

ROMNEY: Mm-hmm.

CAVUTO: And -- and that would be appealing.

ROMNEY: Well, we will see, won't we, Neil?

It's not surprising that Ann Romney would be more inclined toward her husband running again. Unlike a lot of political wives, who don't want their husbands running for president because it's a humiliating experience for the entire family, Ann Romney -- who is admittedly biased -- believes the country needs her husband's leadership in order to redeem itself. According to Tagg Romney, Mitt had "no desire to ... run" in 2012, so it was up to Tagg and Ann to persuade him to do it. Will they apply the same pressure again? We will see.

The Washington Examiner's Byron York reports that "Romney is talking with advisers, consulting with his family, keeping a close eye on the emerging '16 Republican field, and carefully weighing the pluses and minuses of another run. That doesn't mean he will decide to do it, but it does mean that Mitt 2016 is a real possibility." And York also confirms Cavuto's speculation that much of Romney and his allies' consideration centers around Jeb Bush.

The key question for Romney, according to those who have talked to him, is whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decides to run. Romney is said to believe that, other than himself, Bush is the only one of the current Republican field who could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. If Bush jumps in the race, this line of thinking goes, Romney would not run. [...]

Ann Romney went on to say that she thinks Bush will end up running, and if he did, he "would draw on a very similar base that we would draw on." But Romney's supporters saw her remarks as just another indication Romney is seriously thinking about running. And even if Bush decides to run, some Romney supporters who would otherwise be inclined to go with Bush would still want the go-ahead from Romney first.

"I don't think Romney wants to run against Jeb," the supporter quoted earlier said. "We're going to wait and see. We're going to want clarity, if Jeb tips his hat either way after the midterms. If Jeb tips toward running, I can see a meeting with Mitt to ask his intentions." Whatever happens, this group of Romney loyalists -- a significant number of people with a significant amount of money to contribute -- will not move ahead without his OK.

This will be the first Republican presidential primary in God-knows-how-many cycles where there's no early front-runner, presumed winner or guy "whose turn" it is. This confuses and frustrates wealthy Wall Street donors who don't know where to send their checks. In an effort to square this wide-open reality with their simple understandings of politics, they've determined that it must be either Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney who will receive their checks, because they give off some vague aura of respectability, moderation, adulthood and total subservience to the needs of the financial services sector. They look like the only guys who might "know what they're doing" on the big stage.

How many sad things does it say about the state of the Republican 2016 presidential field that so many of the GOP's money people think their best chances lay with Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush?

As we and everyone else have said a million times, and as Daniel Larison neatly reiterates it, all of the things that made Mitt Romney a poor candidate in 2012 will make Mitt Romney a poor candidate again in 2016.

As for Jeb Bush: What, pray tell, are the man's political gifts that draw so much attention and hyping from the donor class? He has not run for political office since 2002 -- before the words "Twitter" and "YouTube" were known. He is out of step with a party that's drawn far to his right on immigration and education. He doesn't seem to get that, either. Just read this mind-boggling account of him campaigning for Thom Tillis in North Carolina, where he touts comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core -- two items that are now anathema to the Republican Party.

Standing alongside Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker and Republican Senate candidate, Mr. Bush outlined his views on two of the issues he cares most passionately about: immigration policy and education standards. But as Mr. Bush made the case for an immigration overhaul and the Common Core standards, Mr. Tillis gently put distance between himself and his guest of honor, who had flown here from Florida on a dreary day to offer his endorsement in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate.

Does Jeb Bush have any idea what Thom Tillis and the rest of the Republican Party in 2014 thinks? It's no longer even at the point where there's a "robust debate" or "civil war" within the party over comprehensive immigration reform or Common Core: The debate is over, the war's been won, and the Republican Party -- especially the Republican Party in its more id-dominated presidential primary iteration -- is against these things. Jeb Bush isn't on one "side" of the debate now. He's an outlier.

Tough choice!

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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