Jeb Bush Isn't Lost in Space

The former Florida governor is plausible, even though he's been out of office for a long time.
Not a Bateson candidate. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Jeb Bush campaign continues to be in the news, with Bill Kristol taking the time to shoot it down this morning:

Kristol said Republican primary voters will not choose someone in 2016 "who was last in office a decade ago," like the former Republican governor.
"He's a good man; he hasn't been involved in any of the fights of the [President Barack] Obama years," Kristol said. "Republicans are kind of worked up about Obamacare, about the federal policy failures, that like someone who is either engaged in those fights in Washington or a governor who's governed successfully in real time. i.e., now, so a Scott Walker or a Mike Pence, or a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio or a Paul Ryan."

In short, Kristol is calling Bush a Bateson candidate, named for Captain Morgan Bateson of the U.S.S. Bozeman in the classic "Cause and Effect" episode of "Star Trek: Next Generation." Bateson candidates, such as Buddy Roemer in 2012 or Mike Gravel in 2004, are out of sync with current political time. If it requires conventional credentials to be a plausible nominee, we can say that Bateson candidates have been out of the picture so long they no longer are plausible.

Bush left office after the 2006 election cycle. He would end 10 years in the political wilderness if he won in 2016. That's longer than some of the candidates I mentioned in my original Bateson post.

Still, I don't think Jeb qualifies as a Bateson, who are are weirdly out of time, and don't seem to belong in the conversation for national office. For example, I think George McGovern in 1984 qualified as one, even though he was only four years removed from the Senate, because after November 1972 no one spoke of him as a future national candidate. That's not the case with Bush. After all, four years ago, he apparently did nothing to move toward a candidacy, and yet was still mentioned regularly as a potential candidate in the political press. To be blunt, those who have had a brother and a father as presidents are going to seem plausible nominees even if they have fewer credentials than those without the family history.

More generally, it's useful to distinguish between plausible nominees and those who don't have a chance. But as nice as it would be if there were hard-and-fast rules, the truth is that the definition of conventional credentials is subjective: it's about what credentials appear sufficient for the party actors who decide the nomination. And we'll never have enough examples to be able to objectively state which one is (say) a Michael Corleone (that is, a plausible nominee) and which is a Fredo. There are always going to be cases on the margins. Is Wesley Clark like Eisenhower, and therefore plausible? Is Rick Santorum disqualified because he lost re-election in his most recent Senate campaign?

It's useful, though. We want to be able to know that when a Michele Bachmann wins the Ames straw poll, we shouldn't expect it to mean anything (because backbench members of the House don't win presidential nominations), and the same is true of a surge of enthusiasm for a Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul . Almost anyone can get a surge, and even win a few early primaries, especially in a large field with no clear leader,. But not everyone will be in a position to convert that surge into a nomination.

So Bush isn't a Bateson, even if his candidacy may make some of us feel we're living the same episode over and over.

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