Democrats Can't Find Consensus to Beat Jeb Bush

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, November 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

Hillary Clinton’s circle wants to be quoted yawning at Jeb Bush, a sure sign of concern that he could beat her in 2016.

“He’s got his own party to run in, and I will be very impressed if he makes it through that primary system,” Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to Clinton and her husband, said after Bush announced this week that he is “actively exploring” a presidential run.

Make no mistake. Clinton’s team and other Democrats already are trying to figure out how to take on Bush, and there’s no early consensus. They could portray him as a shadow of his brother, President George W. Bush, as a moderate who can’t make it through his own party’s primary, or as a candidate who is too conservative to win a general election.

A Bush-centric e-mail that EMILY’s List sent to its donors on Wednesday took the latter approach.

“Jeb Bush made it official. He’s exploring a run for president,” reads the graphic embedded in the fundraising pitch from the group that supports women candidates who back abortion rights. “As governor, he called himself the ‘most pro-life governor in modern times.’...Imagine what he’d do as president.”

A button at the bottom of the e-mail says “Help us get ready to hold Jeb Bush accountable. Donate.”

Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s list, is often mentioned as a possible campaign manager for the former First Lady. Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the group, sought to portray Bush as too conservative for the American electorate.

‘Their Side’

“Jeb Bush is going to spend a long time reminding everyone how conservative he is on these issues,” she said. “Voters are going to see that he’s not on their side.”

Yet at the same time, the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge released a Web video replete with clips of Republican commentators and news reporters saying Bush will struggle to win over conservatives. The group counts high-profile Clinton donors among its benefactors.

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that if Bush runs and wins the Republican nomination, he’ll struggle to galvanize the conservative base because he’s endorsed the Common Core education standards reviled by many in the Republican Party and speaks warmly of undocumented immigrants.

Harrison said that while it’s important to appeal to independent voters, a modern presidential campaign has to energize its party’s grassroots to win.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill declined to comment on Bush, following her team’s protocol when it comes to discussing potential 2016 rivals.

‘Too Conservative’

Candidates are always trying to define their rivals for the voting public, and Democrats often pick the tag “too conservative” for Republicans. President Barack Obama’s aides believed they had a choice in running against Mitt Romney in 2012, between calling him a flip-flopper or a far-right conservative. It was former President Bill Clinton who said the flip-flop tag wouldn’t stick.

Romney’s the other Republican, besides George W. Bush, to whom Democrats would like to compare Jeb Bush. Democrats were able to use Romney’s wealth, and the ways in which he attained it, to argue that he was out of touch with the needs of most voters.

And the one anti-Bush theme that is a common refrain among Clinton-aligned groups and longtime advisers is that his business ventures will hurt him. He started two private equity funds this year, including one, BH Global Aviation, that’s incorporated in the U.K. and Wales, allowing foreign investors to avoid taxation in the U.S.

‘Benedict Arnolds’

“He would be the first president who organized overseas tax havens for billionaire Benedict Arnolds,” Begala said.

Bush will give up his role as a senior adviser at Barclays Plc, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Whatever approach Democrats choose, it’s clear they’re wary of Bush. One veteran Clinton adviser said that he is probably the strongest Republican nominee, citing his moderate positions on education and immigration that don’t sit well with conservatives but hit home with independent voters.

The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bush would benefit in a general election if he can survive the primary without pandering to the Republican base on those issues -- both because his positions appeal outside the Republican Party and because it would show him to be a candidate of conviction.

Bush Fatigue?

“As I look at the Republican side, he’s an adult in the room that commands respect and the kind of conservative that Wall Street and other Republican establishment types can get behind,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. “The one downside is his last name’s Bush and there’s still fatigue in this country.”

Like Mollineau, Begala acknowledged Bush could be a strong candidate, if he makes it to a general election.

“Since he’s likely to run as a Republican, I think it’s more of a question for potential Republican candidates than potential Democratic candidates,” he said. “The guy is formidable. He’s impressive.”

If some Democrats try to sound more blase, it’s rooted in other reasons. Clinton’s political allies don’t want to feed the Bush-Clinton throwback hype that has tantalized cable-news producers. The battle of the dynasties talk isn’t helpful to her if she ends up winning the Democratic nomination and facing someone not named Bush. And there’s no reason to elevate a potential heavyweight.

‘Act of Love’

Part of the challenge for Democrats is that Jeb Bush himself has staked out varying positions on issues, such as illegal immigration. In April, he described families that decided to come to the U.S. as breaking the law. “But it’s not a felony,” he said. “It’s an act of love.”

By last month, he moved closer to his fellow Republican hopefuls when he criticized President Barack Obama for using executive powers to protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from being deported. And on Wednesday, he described Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba after a five-decade embargo a “foreign policy misstep.”

His recent moves toward a run, including a forthcoming e-book on his years as governor and yesterday’s Facebook announcement about his decision-making process, have been greeted warmly by veteran Republican Party political operatives and coolly by a younger generation that identifies more closely with the Tea Party.

Paul, Cruz

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz are leaders among the latter set and could be part of a large field of Republican candidates vying for conservative votes.

For the first time in decades, there could be multiple candidates fighting for the middle-of-the-road mantle in the Republican primary, including Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Mike Duncan, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the expansion of the Republican field is a sign of strength.

“Historically, we have not had as level a playing field with as many entrants in a long time,” Duncan said. “This is relatively new territory for us.”

Duncan pegged 1964 as the last time the Republican Party offered such a strong set of contenders across the ideological spectrum. That year, the party nominated Barry Goldwater, who won the support of a young Hillary Rodham Clinton but lost the election to President Lyndon Johnson. His opponents included New York governor and future vice president Nelson Rockefeller, Governor James Rhodes of Ohio, UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and former Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota.