Shadow Government

Jeb Bush Would Be a Great President … If He Can Win

What do you think of Jeb Bush’s chances? That question, in one form or another, has been posed to me countless times in the last year or so by reporters, politicos, colleagues, students, friends, and, in a few cases, total strangers. While they hardly constitute a random sample of the electorate, my interlocutors are much ...

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What do you think of Jeb Bush’s chances? That question, in one form or another, has been posed to me countless times in the last year or so by reporters, politicos, colleagues, students, friends, and, in a few cases, total strangers. While they hardly constitute a random sample of the electorate, my interlocutors are much broader than one might suppose and roughly match the U.S. distribution: one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, one-third conflicted. The multiple conversations that result have produced a revealing pattern that extends across all partisan categories: most of the critique of Gov. Bush concerns whether he could become president, not whether he would be good at the job if he won it.

Many people, Democrats included, believe that Governor Bush would be an effective president and commander-in-chief. Of course, the most fervid partisans would deny this if a camera was recording their views, but I am struck by how many times even normally shrill Democrats have confided to me that they think Gov. Bush would actually be pretty good at the job of being president. I hear many objections about Gov. Bush, but very, very few of the objections concern how he would function as a president. He has shown a strong command of the issues, he has a good record of leading a complex state, and he is seasoned. Even passionate Hillary supporters admit that it is hard to make the case that Jeb is unqualified to be a good leader.

The critiques get a bit louder when it comes to Bush’s chances at winning the general election, however. Views of Hillary Clinton’s prospects are all over the map — some consider her unstoppable, others believe her to be so flawed that only a very weak Republican candidate would fail to beat her. One consistent complaint about Gov. Bush as the standard-bearer is that he would complicate Republican efforts to exploit some of her obvious weaknesses: painting Clinton as the candidate of the past, and a troubled past at that. Her age, her weak record, and her indelible association with President Barack Obama’s very unsatisfactory foreign policy legacy all present a fairly obvious line of attack for Republicans. But, my interlocutors ask, can someone whose last name is Bush really deliver that attack convincingly?

The critiques are the loudest concerning Bush’s chances at winning the Republican nomination. After a rocky start, Gov. Bush looks to be facing a very strong field of competitors. Even Democrats concede that the top two tiers of Republican candidates include a range of very strong candidates, each with a credible claim for national attention. Whether or not Gov. Bush originally hoped to intimidate the field and drive away the strongest rivals, it is too late for that now. Bush’s best shot at winning the primary is building an operation that keeps him in the fight, rather than looking to deliver an early knock-out blow to his rivals. I have heard many (gleeful) Democrats and (anxious) Republicans express concerns about whether Bush could prevail in a tough primary.

What these comments add up to is that most of my interlocutors seem to believe that the qualities that would make Bush a good president do not necessarily make him a good candidate. This is a challenge for Gov. Bush, but perhaps not an insurmountable one, given what we have experienced in the Obama years: for all his formidable skills as a campaigner, even partisan Democrats acknowledge that President Obama has clearly struggled to master the job of actually governing. Perhaps the voters will react to that experience and focus more on the candidate’s prospects for doing the job and less on his prospects for getting the job.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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