Jeb Bush, Out of the Box

Jeb Bush Speaking

photo courtesy

Jeb Bush, Out of the Box
| published July 21, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Republican candidates are making a lot of waves, generating a lot of noise, and some are even talking trash about each other. This is atypical behavior for the GOP even on a bad election year cycle, but downright bizarre this early—with more than 15 months before a general election.

But this is no typical election cycle. As of this writing, and with Ohio’s John Kasich entering the field, there are some 16 Republicans running for President of the United States. The Democratic side has at least five candidates. Before the end of July, more GOP hopefuls may enter the fray, bringing the grand total number of candidates of the two major parties to 24, give or take. And we haven’t even had the first debate.

Which brings us to the quandary now facing that crowded Republican race: most of the television networks, in longstanding agreements with the Republican National Committee and its complex rules, decided earlier this year to limit the total number of candidates on stage for televised debates to ten. This is as much for obvious logistical reasons as anything else—after all, how useful would a 90 minute debate be when there are 16 candidates on a stage, each one trying to make their position clear on issues ranging from immigration to China to education to infrastructure? Fox News and CNN have both said they have no intention of budging from that 10-person template, which means that at least six GOP contenders won’t make the final cut when the first debate goes live in early August.

The criteria will be simple: based on composite polling samples taken in the days immediately prior to the first debate, to be held inside the Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland, the top ten candidates will be ushered onto the stage. Both Fox News and CNN have worked out a consolation prize in which the others will participate in post- and pre-debate roundtables and discussions—which in essence means no debate at all.  Some have derisively dubbed these mini-talks the kiddie debates.  No matter, only ten podiums will be there for the real deal debate.

This mathematical constraint has created a pre-debate primary of sorts, in which 16 candidates all jostle for position in order to gain access to that debate stage in Cleveland. Those who do not appear can be expected to quickly fade from the national conversation, their fundraising efforts petering out and their candidacies dead in the water.

Donald Trump, the boisterous and controversially-tongued businessman and TV entertainer will surely be on that stage; his recent polling surge, despite his nasty dust-ups with John McCain and now Lindsey Graham, have him more-or-less in the top position, ahead even of presumed party favorite Jeb Bush. In addition to the former Florida governor, a few other top tier candidates can also be considered sure bets to make that final cut: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who in most polls is close on Bush’s heels, but in some polls is tied with Bush, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, in some polls running a respectable third or fourth. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will also make the cut, as in some polls he is running slightly—and only slightly—ahead of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

John Kasich—like Walker—may actually benefit from being a late arrival to the field. This seems counter-intuitive, especially considering how much cash Bush has raised and how much media traction Trump has incited, not to mention Walker’s apparent strength as the presumptive Bush challenger. But Kasich can convert the media attention of his recent arrival into leverage to push himself past the other members of middle-lower tier pack—Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and others—and perhaps even squeak in on the polling radar to make it into the Cleveland debate.

As the debate grows closer, the difference between the tenth candidate and the eleventh candidate may be as narrow as a fraction of percentage point, meaning that the intensity on the battlefield will increase exponentially over the next couple of weeks. And the horizontal spread of numbers means that candidates sitting low in the top ten will be in an epic struggle with those just below the threshold, battering each other with body blows and wild haymakers in a brutal attempt to gain half or quarter of a point. A few candidates may be forced to expend all their campaign cash in one short period just to get into the first or second debate. After that, it’s over for the also rans.

In that vein, Trump seems less like a madman and more like a genius, though in fact Trump is merely being Trump—giving audiences what they want, unvarnished street truth, toxic insults, and reality TV trash talk.

Once the front-runner, barely, second placer Jeb Bush wants to shake things up, and at a speech in Tallahassee on Monday he sought to distance himself from the rest of the crowded field of candidates by promising to disrupt the Washington establishment: deep tax breaks, massive cuts to government spending and bloated federal programs, and an overhaul of the D.C. culture which inextricably links big money lobbyists to elected officials.

Bush also told the audience that he will insist on line-item veto power as chief executive, and that he will impose an immediate hiring freeze on federal workers.

“It will not be my intention,” Bush said, “to preside over the establishment, but in every way I know, to disrupt that establishment and make it accountable to the people.” To some observers, it may seem odd that the candidate arguably most closely associated with “the establishment” would vow to bring a wrecking ball with him to Washington on Inauguration Day. But these are weird times for the GOP. Never before has the Grand Old Party seen such a large crowd of candidates, and never before have Republicans faced a presumptive front-runner like Hillary Clinton.

Even the most conservative estimates—that is, those infused with the least hyperbole—suggest that the former First Lady, former U.S. Senator, and former Secretary of State, could raise upward of $1.5 billion between now and the week of the Iowa caucuses. Facing little serious competition—though some would argue Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders represents her only genuine threat—Clinton will spend relatively little of those billions in primaries and caucuses, meaning she can sandbag most of the money for the general election and what she expects will be a brutal campaign by her eventual Republican opponent (whoever that turns out to be).

So for Bush, coming out swinging against the Washington establishment by promising to slash government spending and by vowing to lead a forced march of lobbyists out of the District of Columbia, well, it seems less like lunacy and a lot more like the talk of someone who intends to separate himself from a pack of candidates dangerously close to being eclipsed by the loose-lipped Trump. And though it may seem logical for Bush—like most in the GOP—to pray nightly for Trump to just go away, the Trumpster’s presence in the field, however distracting, may allow Bush to do something important in the first debate: appear to be the grown-up in the room.

Bush can be expected to cast himself historically as a reformer. As governor of a politically complex and diverse state, he says he worked daily to get things done despite the political noise. His fondness for the power of the pen in the form of legislative vetoes, Bush said, earned him the nickname “Veto” and Veto Corleone, a reference to the film The Godfather, and a moniker pinned upon him by his political rivals in Florida (mostly Democrats), but a nickname he says he grew to like.

Bush says he was able to bring about tax cuts every year he was chief executive in the state, and he remains proud—much to the dismay of public employee unions and employee advocacy groups—of the 13,000 state employee positions he slashed over a six year period. Bush said that governance in the Sunshine State improved in large part because of his disdain for the influence of lobbyists, and for his ability to forge consensus between previously feuding Florida Democrats and Republicans.

Speaking on Monday, Bush told the Tallahassee audience that he would insist on importing those same reformer’s skills to Washington. Bush also said that Representatives and Senators should be required to fully disclose all dealings with lobbyists—meals, parties, junkets, meetings—and he said he would draft legislation to make it a law—not merely a recommendation—that lobbyists and elected officials remain officially disconnected unless it was part of the official record. He also said that it would serve the country well if former members of Congress were banned from lobbying for a period of six years, not the one year hiatus now considered standard.

Citing what he says was a pattern of bipartisan achievement in Florida during his tenure as Governor, Bush said that under his watch Republicans, Democrats and Independents will have to learn how to work together to get things done in Washington.

Bush’s words may strike some in Washington as heresy, others as a lofty but unattainable. Still others of a more cynical stripe might suggest Bush is merely pandering for poll numbers—making a broadly worded pledge which he knows he will be unable to deliver, the failure of which he can easily and demonstrably blame on Washington dysfunction. One Democratic friend in Florida said to me on Facebook “Bush knows damned well he can’t deliver on any of that claptrap, but it sounds good to say those things, so he’s says it.”

Other analysts suggest that Bush is merely raising the stakes for the other GOP contenders, and forcing at least half the crowded field into defensive mode; the first debate may expose an underlying talking point within the Republican competition—that of governors versus Senators. Bush’s out-of-the-box promises may help draw a deep distinction between governors like himself, Senators (like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham), for whom the implication is clear: they are part of the problem in Washington.

Of course the simpler explanation is that the noisy season, the one we usually associate with places like New Hampshire and South Carolina, is already here. The debate criteria set forth by Fox News and CNN has created a non-voting, national, quasi-primary—a first-step contest in which 16 candidates must be winnowed down to a manageable ten. And though Bush’s poll numbers at the moment place him squarely in the first debate, the sudden and shocking acceleration of Donald Trump has shown that anything is possible, and that disruptors lurk around every corner. Bush may be seeking to burnish his position so well that he is immune to further chaos, at least for the next few weeks. Then, once inside that debate hall, he can effectively communicate why he—and not Trump—should be the party’s nominee next summer.

In the meantime, expect the GOP candidates to be taking risks—lots of risks. Nothing is to be gained for the candidate who plays it safe between now and August 6, except an early retirement from the 2016 horserace.

Related Thursday Review articles:

First GOP Debate May Force Some Candidates to Sidelines; Thursday Review; July 6, 2015.

Grudge Match; Trump Vs. McCain; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2015.