The Jeb! Comeback Story, Coming Soon to a News Outlet Near You?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Three weeks ago, I wrote as an aside in a Dorf on Law post: "Speaking of fake moderates, I might be the only person outside of Kennebunkport who thinks that the Republicans will end up nominating Jeb Bush this year.  I will explain that view in a future post ... ."  The future is now.

With something resembling voting having just taken place at yesterday's caucuses in Iowa, the long slog toward the presidential nominations is set to become a frenzied sprint for the next month or so.  Notwithstanding the "everything is different this time" story lines that have emerged regarding both parties' races, at least the Democrats appear to be readying themselves to run true to form.  Early excitement for the upstart, somewhat-to-the-left candidate (think Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, John Edwards, and at various times Jerry Brown) will give way to the realization that money, organization, and endorsements have already determined the outcome of the race.

This, in part, explains my gut-level sense that Jeb! is not finished, notwithstanding all of the evidence to the contrary (including his sixth-place finish last night).  There have been plenty of times when the inevitable nominee on the Republican side looked dead in the water (most recently, John McCain in late 2007), and when everyone was abuzz with talk about how that year's outcome would be a big surprise.  Yet the only surprise was that anyone ever expected an unexpected outcome.

Still, this year really could turn out to be different, so it would be helpful at least to have some story to tell myself about why I think that Jeb! is still alive.  A few thoughts:

(1) Bush really is the candidate about whom Republicans were saying "It's his turn" before he announced.  As I noted in a Dorf on Law post at the end of the 2012 primary season, Republicans in particular have been very rigid about nominating the guy who is somehow seen as being next in line.  In that post, discussing whether Rick Santorum's second-place finish in the 2012 fight placed him in the favorite's position going forward, I wrote: "Jeb Bush (who also stayed out this year) could jump in front of everyone to be dubbed the next guy in line for 2016."  When he announced his candidacy, that is exactly what happened.

(2) The status as "next" is not merely a matter of politicos' loose talk.  Being next means money and endorsements, and Bush has both in abundance.  The Bush campaign's own cash hoard is merely third among Republican candidates, but his SuperPAC's have more than four times as much money on hand as those supporting Marco Rubio, and almost double the money as those backing Ted Cruz.

(3) The Cruz victory in Iowa yesterday seems especially reminiscent of earlier years' false storylines about the old order being disrupted, with the added twist that Cruz himself is the most hated man that anyone can remember in American politics.  Strange things can happen, but there really would have to be a complete revolution in that party for Cruz to win the nomination.

(4) The long-awaited cracks are already appearing in the Trump phenomenon.  In an analysis a few months back, a commentator wondered what would happen when Trump lost a caucus or primary.  The ego-driven response could be to try harder, but it could also be to say, "If I can't win every time, this is no fun."  And even if he were to try harder, there is no reason to think that Shrill Donald will perform better than Arrogant Donald.

(5) When Cruz and Trump are ruled out, the plausible field narrows to Bush, Rubio, Kasich, and Christie.  All are incorrectly viewed as "moderate" by the political press and by Republican insiders.  It is possible to tell stories in which Kasich or Christie becomes the nominee, but it is extremely difficult to tell either story with any conviction.  Christie does connect with some voters in ways that I find utterly mystifying, but in addition to all of his baggage, he is a loud, obnoxious, unattractive person about whom party leaders would have to be very, very excited before they lined up behind him.  Kasich received a sort-of-endorsement from the NYT editorial board, which will actually hurt him with both voters and leaders on the Republican side.

(6) Rubio is the flavor of the moment, and I can see why he is currently the bettors' favorite in a "Trump implodes, Cruz is unacceptable" story.  Even so, he is widely untrusted and disliked in the Senate (looking good only by comparison to Cruz, which is no trick).  He also comes across as incredibly slick, with a fidgety demeanor that makes him seem nervous and lacking seriousness.  Finally, his efforts to compete in Iowa have resulted in his loudly touting his long-held extreme policy positions (completely banning abortions, for example) that will make it ever more difficult to sell him as a faux-moderate.

(7) Bush is no moderate, either, but at least he did not become super-religious, as Rubio did in the last debate.  Moreover, Bush's people evidently hold a special hatred for Rubio, and they have shown that they are willing to go after the youngster.  Loyalty is big with Poppy and the boys, and if the pro-Bush SuperPAC's do nothing else with their money, they seem willing to use it to punish Rubio.

(8) Importantly, Bush does not need things to go right in order to have staying power in the race.  He has the money, he has the connections, he has the organization in place nationwide.  All he needs to do is stick around, and his numbers will go up, simply because the number of competitors will go down.  If, for example, Kasich or Christie have a bad day in New Hampshire, it is pretty much over for them.  And even if they do well, experience has shown that -- as Sanders will also show on the Democratic side -- the creation of the front-loaded multi-state "Super Tuesday" primary calendar is a nearly impossible barrier to outsiders.  This was by design, with both parties' leaders figuring out long ago that insurgencies cannot be stopped in Iowa or New Hampshire, but they can simply be forced to cover too wide a field soon thereafter.

(9) Jeb!'s best hope going forward is that he will be viewed as a safe, familiar leader whom no one hates.  This view is already widespread among political pundits.  And with the political press's horse-race approach to covering the campaign, reporters are absolute suckers for comeback stories.  Imagine the headlines.  "Bush, Once Thought Out of the Race, Surprises in _____.  Party Leaders Take Notice."  "Strong Third-Place Finish in ______ Re-energizes Bush Supporters."  You get the idea.

Talk is cheap.  How much would I bet on Bush at this point?  Given how much I truly despise him, and what a phenomenally weak candidate he has been to this point, it would be easy to dismiss everything that I have written above as a mere exercise in political storytelling.  I can certainly see the possibility that he simply sinks further from here, lurking in the background for a couple of months only out of stubbornness and cluelessness.  Rather than calling this an affirmative prediction, maybe it is more accurate to say that I will not be in the least bit surprised if Bush makes the comeback that I described above.

In any event, the horse-race style of reporting in American presidential politics has a long record of being very wrong about the fresh, new, different, game-changing people who are supposed to surprise the old order.  The preferred candidate of the old order is sustained by money, name recognition, money, respect (even unearned respect), money, family connections, and money.  And by a credulous press that is anxious to tell a big comeback story.

I might be wrong.  As a matter of substance, in any case, every choice on the Republican side is a bad one.