Does Jeb Bush Understand His Party?

Can Jeb Bush avoid becoming the Jon Huntsman of 2016? You might remember Huntsman—affable fellow, ran for president in 2012? When he first joined the race, Huntsman got a lot of positive press coverage and even some praise from liberals. Here was a former governor who was certainly conservative but also seemed willing to work with Democrats, who disagreed with President Obama on many things but didn't hate him, and whose willingness to renounce past flirtations with sanity and pander shamelessly to tea partiers was minimal. And of course, his candidacy went nowhere.

And now we've got Jeb Bush, who has a well-known name, the affection of corporate America, and maybe the best shot of anyone at becoming the "establishment" candidate. The problem is that he's not willing to give up his support of comprehensive immigration reform or Common Core educational standards, making him suspiciously moderate in primary voters' eyes. And as the Wall Street Journal reminds us, he even refuses to take the "no new taxes" pledge demanded by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, while almost every other potential candidate has signed the pledge.

When the Journal quoted Bush on Monday saying the Republican nominee needs to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles," people mocked the questionable logic seemingly at work. But my guess is that he was trying to say that if you don't pander and take the chance on losing the primary, you might win it anyway and then be better positioned for the general election. This seems to be where Bush is headed: he's going to position himself as the candidate with the courage to stand up to his party's most conservative voters and tell them what they don't want to hear, then tell them something else he hopes they do want to hear, which is that he can win them back the White House.

That first part would indeed be appealing to the general electorate. But it'll be really hard to win the primary while openly antagonizing that base. You don't necessarily have to become their champion, but it's going to be almost impossible to win if they actively despise you.

As I've argued before, the candidate who gets the nomination is the one who can be the bridge between the party's elite and its more conservative rank-and-file. Neither one necessarily has to fall in love with him, but he'll have to be at least acceptable to both. Bush's deep support in the establishment will make him a more formidable candidate than Jon Huntsman was, but if he can't at least make the base comfortable with the idea of his candidacy, he's not going to have much of a chance.

The more conservative candidates will not only attack Bush on issues like immigration, they'll also argue that he's the latest iteration of what led to losses in 2008 and 2012. Instead, they'll say, we need a True Conservative. And faced with this argument between someone like Bush they can't stomach on one hand, and a candidate like Ted Cruz they know would get blown out on the other hand, they're going to look for a middle alternative. That could end up being any one of a number of people, but at the moment it's awfully hard to see Bush building that bridge.