Jeb Bush for Vice President?

Republican mandarins increasingly think he's not a contender for the presidential nomination—but he could lend moderate establishment cred to a Tea Party candidate.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Even before Eric Cantor’s seismic loss to a political novice backed by the Tea Party last week, many Republican elders had concluded that Jeb Bush, who really wants to become the third President Bush, won’t run in 2016.

The emerging consensus explains why some of these party mandarins have launched a new political boomlet touting the ex-Florida governor: Jeb for Veep.

At first the notion seems a little weird. While a reliable ideological conservative, Bush is a dreaded mainstream Republican. Worse yet for many on the Right, he’s a fervent booster of comprehensive immigration reform. That provokes apoplexy among many Tea Party faithful and other GOP conservatives.

With Cantor’s defeat blamed in part on his apparent willingness to entertain a middle ground on immigration, Bush as second banana on a ticket headed by a more conservative Republican would seem to be a nonstarter.

Not so fast, some GOP heavy hitters maintain.

“Jeb would be perfectly acceptable to the base if the nominee is a proven conservative,” said a prominent Republican consultant. “If it’s [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie or some moderate, Jeb would be a no go. On the other hand, if a right-wing nominee wanted to make a bow towards the middle and add some Hispanic vote appeal, Jeb would be a good choice.”

Legendary political operative Stu Spencer was even more emphatic about Jeb’s value to a party anxious to attract independents and swing Democrats in 2016.

“Jeb could be a safe choice for anybody,” said Spencer, who worked for three Republican presidents. “He has name ID, a Spanish background, [is] a former governor, and he’s conservative.”

Ironically, it was Spencer who pushed Ronald Reagan to pick Jeb’s father, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate in 1980. En route to the Detroit convention, Spencer told Reagan he needed a No. 2 more moderate than himself to beat President Carter. At first Reagan balked, believing Bush a little too squishy. But eventually he sided with Spencer, Bush campaign manager James Baker, and other moderates, and tapped Bush for the ticket.

Like Reagan, a conservative 2016 nominee would benefit from the perception of picking a more moderate running mate, Spencer argued.

“He’s the perfect No. 2 for any Republican ticket,” said a top GOP fundraiser who echoed Spencer in promoting Bush. “It makes a world of sense.”

A spokesman for Bush called such speculation “very premature.”

Bush has remained rigorously quiet about his options—even brother George W. Bush remains in the dark about his younger sibling’s leanings. He’s told insiders what he says publicly: He’ll talk with his family after the November midterm elections and decide soon thereafter.

But his wife Columba’s big-time opposition to a presidential run leads many Republican leaders to assume Jeb Bush won’t be a candidate. That doesn’t necessarily rule out a spot on the ticket; given the Bush family’s sense of public service, it might be hard for Bush to reject an appeal from the GOP nominee to help out.

Bush is an unabashed conservative, the theory goes, but a kinder, gentler version who can appeal to mainstream Republicans, conservative Democrats, and independents. He would even theoretically pass muster with conservative red-hots who think he’s too establishment—especially since he speaks Spanish like a native and is popular with Hispanic voters turned off by the GOP’s hard line on immigration reform.

“A straight-up Tea Party ticket cannot win,” adds one of the GOP’s most prominent fundraisers. “Too many Republicans and independents will just flat-out not vote for a ticket with two Tea Party guys. It will not happen.”

And if he has to campaign for only three months as a veep nominee instead of more than two years swimming upstream to be president, a senior Bush family source predicts his wife would sign off. “Being picked for president-in-waiting would be ideal for him and his family,” the consultant said.

Bush’s prospects for the second spot would test whether the no-prisoners Right looking to purge the party of mainstream Republicans could abide another Bush—or if, like the pragmatic conservative Reagan, they’re willing to throw a bone to the middle to boost their chances of capturing the White House.

At least for the moment, that’s not a popular notion in some conservative quarters.

“If you put someone on the ticket who supports Common Core [education standards] and bank bailouts and the list goes on, you are taking grassroots energy away from your candidacy,” said FreedomWorks communications director Jackie Bodnar. “Picking a Jeb Bush would really demonstrate how out of touch the traditional, old-guard Republicans are with their constituents back home.”

But Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles calls Bush “a smart and intelligent choice” for potential presidential nominees like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Jeb Bush would deliver Florida for Republicans, increase our ability to raise money, and is practically Hispanic,” Aguilar said. “If the choice is made by the top of the ticket and he is a conservative candidate, I think the conservative base would go along with it.”

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Tom DeFrank is a contributing editor at National Journal.

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