Jeb Bush Doesn't Have a Mitt Romney Problem

And neither does Romney: Finance experience probably won't count against a candidate in 2016 the way it did in 2012.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Everything old is new again this season: torture debates, war in Iraq, and that fruitcake your aunt "makes" every year. (It's the same one, right?) So too with the Republican field for president in 2016: Two of the names at the top of the list right now are a Bush (Jeb, this time) and a Romney (the same one).

It's obviously early for either to make a decision, and there are strong reasons to think both might not run. One way to figure out what they might decide is to conduct a straw poll on how insiders think they're leaning, by talking to as many confidants and family members as possible. That's useful but not dispositive, since the act of publicly commenting is often intended to influence the choice as much as to describe private discussions.

That's what makes Joshua Green and Miles Weiss's Businessweek story this week so valuable: It gives a concrete reason why Bush might not want—or be able—to run, which is his growing private-equity network and the difficulty he'd face in extricating himself:

His flurry of ventures doesn’t suggest someone preparing to run for president, according to a dozen fund managers, lawyers, and ­private-placement agents who were ­apprised of his recent activities by Bloomberg Businessweek. Most private equity funds have a life span of 10 years. While it isn’t impossible that Bush could bail on his investors so soon after taking their money, “that would be unusual,” says Steven Kaplan, a private equity expert at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. One fundraiser for private equity adds that normally you’d be winding down such businesses, rather than expanding them, if you were going to run.

Bush opted for finance, despite the political liabilities, for the same reason most people do: He wanted to make a lot of money. While he is better off than the vast majority of Americans, he has lagged his own family in earnings.

While it's not the main focus on the piece, Businessweek's headline posits that Bush "has a Mitt Romney problem," and as former Rick Santorum adviser and Republican consultant John Brabender told the reporters, "Running as the second coming of Mitt Romney is not a credential that’s going to play anywhere, with Republicans or Democrats." Bush also worked as an investment banker at Barclays previously.

A Bush spokesman told Green and Weiss: “There is nothing related to Governor Bush’s business interests that would hinder a run for president in any way should that be his decision.” In fact, the idea that there might be such thing as "a Mitt Romney problem" for future Republican candidates is tough to believe. Romney's struggles in 2012 had three major dimensions:

  1. Timing: Romney had the misfortune to run at a time when job growth was strong enough that the fundamentals favored an Obama victory, but when memories of the recession were fresh enough that a career laying off workers in private equity was unpopular.
  2. Opponent: Given that Obama had few personal ties to the corporate world, it was tough for Romney to try to turn around the president's attacks. Assuming Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, that won't be the case at all in 2016. Not only is the first Clinton administration tied to Wall Street icons like Robert Rubin, Clinton herself has had a cozy relationship with the finance industry—both in terms of the paid speeches she's given at places like Goldman Sachs, and in terms of her rhetoric, much to progressive chagrin. Add to that her considerable personal wealth, and she isn't well-positioned to make the sorts of "fat cat" attacks that worked well for Obama.
  3. Messaging: Nor did Romney do himself any favors. From "corporations are people" to "I like being able to fire people," Romney was drawn to gaffes that highlighted Obama's narrative about him like a moth to a flame. His self-immolation in the form of his 47 percent remarks was spectacular.

It's hard to see any of those playing out the same way in 2016. And besides, the finance question is already baked into public perceptions—as evidenced by the fact that Romney is running nearly 9 points ahead of any other Republican in HuffPost Pollster's average.

In fact, Politico reports Friday that Romney is taking a second (third? fourth? ninth?) look at running for president a third time. "While some people close to Romney insist he hasn’t moved from saying he has no plans to run, the 2012 Republican nominee has sounded at least open to the idea in recent conversations," Politico reports. Lo and behold, Romney has noticed what profession Bush is in these days, too—and is willing, at least privately, to take a swipe at another top contender for the center-right mantle.

“You saw what they did to me with Bain [Capital],” he has said ... according to three sources familiar with the line. “What do you think they’ll do to [Bush] over Barclays?”

If Romney's hopeful friends are right, and given the ways a finance background would likely play differently in 2016, the problem might not be that Jeb Bush is painted as another Mitt Romney. His problem might be that the first Mitt Romney is standing in his way.