Is Jeb Bush Buying the Nomination?

Will the sight of the former Florida governor raking in cash, and crowding out his rivals, convince Republicans of the need for campaign-finance reform?

Tony Gutierrez/AP

Reading about the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s easy to forget that America considers itself a democracy. Here are a few recent headlines, chosen almost at random: “Jeb Bush’s eye-popping event: $100K per ticket,” “Hillary Fundraising Off to a Slow Start,” “Chris Christie Hopes To Move Past ‘Bridgegate’ With A National Fundraising Tour,” “Walker targets Romney donors, Jeb turf.” If you handed a Martian an iPad, told her to read 20 recent articles about the 2016 campaign, and then asked her how America chooses its presidents, she’d be more likely to mention money than votes.

This affliction is bipartisan. But in 2016, it may take a particular toll on the GOP. That’s because Jeb Bush’s extraordinary success raising money is catapulting him into the role of Republican frontrunner. And given the GOP’s tendency to nominate frontrunners, that means Republicans may well choose one of the weakest candidates in their primary field.

Jeb’s weaknesses are hiding in plain sight. They’ve just been obscured by his dazzling success in raising cash.

First, he’s not a natural politician. Jeb’s admirers consider him wonky, hard-working, and principled. But he’s also an introvert who doesn’t much like to campaign. As Peter Baker recently noted, “in political settings, he sometimes seems to eye the exit, calculating how to get from here to there with the least fuss.” Candidates who don’t enjoy politics can still win the presidency. Barack Obama, although a great orator, is something of an introvert himself. So was Jimmy Carter. But more often than not, the more gifted campaigner—whether it be Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush—prevails. Jeb, with his love of policy, distaste for politics and preference for sitting behind a computer screen rather than interacting with a crowd, has less in common temperamentally with his brother than with the guy his brother beat: Al Gore.

Second, Jeb doesn’t have a gut-level connection with his party’s base. Another lesson of recent elections is that candidates with strong emotional connections to their party’s activists enjoy more freedom to reach out to swing voters. George W. Bush’s born-again evangelicalism gave him a cultural connection to conservatives that John McCain and Mitt Romney lacked. That meant activists did not scrutinize his issue positions as carefully, looking for heresies. (Bush suffered little conservative backlash in either 2000 or 2004, for instance, for supporting comprehensive immigration reform). Obama has a similar rapport with liberal Democrats.

Jeb, on the other hand, although quite conservative, is widely distrusted by his party’s base. According to a January Wall Street Journal poll, only 37 percent of Republicans view Jeb favorably. That doesn’t mean he can’t win the nomination. After all, McCain and Romney did. But because of their fragile relationship with their party’s base, neither had much freedom to move to the center. Jeb may face the same problem. He claims he won’t pander to the Republican right, yet he’s already doing so. To win the nomination and mobilize conservatives in the general election, he’ll have to keep doing so while Rush Limbaugh scrutinizes his every move. All of which will it make it harder to win over those swing voters who view the Republican right with disdain.

Finally, and most importantly, Jeb can’t exploit Hillary Clinton’s greatest weakness. As the wife of a former president whose party has held power for the last eight years, Hillary is vulnerable to a candidate who embodies change. But given his last name, Jeb can’t do so. While other Republicans could frame 2016 as a choice between the past and future, Jeb would make it a choice between two pasts, one of which Americans remember far more fondly than the other.

All this would be more obvious if the money chase did not dominate campaign coverage. If Bush’s well-known last name did not provide him with such epic fundraising capacity, in fact, he’d be George Pataki: a dull, moderately conservative former governor of a large state who has been out of politics for a while.

In winning the money primary, Bush is crowding out potential candidates with greater appeal to actual voters. Consider Marco Rubio. He’s a more natural politician. Despite an immigration stance similar to Bush’s, he has a stronger connection to the GOP’s conservative base. And given his youth and lack of connections to previous Republican administrations, he would naturally embody change. Yet as a fellow Floridian, Rubio is the candidate Jeb hurts the most.

On ideological grounds, Republicans generally hate public financing of campaigns. But in 2016, they need it more than Democrats. Right now, the people with the greatest influence over the GOP’s next presidential nominee are caucusing not in Sioux City but Central Park West. And they’re choosing the wrong guy.