Hopeful. Audacious.

Photographer: Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Jeb Bush's Audacity of Hope

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Jeb Bush's nascent presidential candidacy is predicated on one big bet and one small one. The big bet is that the Great Republican Anti-Government Tantrum is over, and that American conservatism is prepared to revert to a more moderate mission as a force for nimble government, efficient markets, powerful military and acceptance of a minimal social safety net as a necessary hedge against untrammeled capitalism.

The small bet is that Bush himself, and his campaign, will have the character and discipline to hew to principle even after the Republican base discovers his deviant positions on immigration and education, and begins to suspect that Bush can't be trusted as a vessel carrying the base's sacred myths.

Bush recently suggested to a business audience at a Wall Street Journal event that a Republican candidate should be willing to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.” In effect, either Bush will break the wild Tea Party stallion, or the rogue horse will buck him. No retreat, no surrender. Also, perhaps, no victory.

Bush's Facebook post today, in which he said he had "decided to actively explore the possibility of running" for president, begins the process of rallying key supporters while trying to elbow rivals from the race. Ideally, he'd now like to see 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and a passel of governors, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, shy away from a contest. (Bush can be a tough campaigner. In a previous life, I worked for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who challenged him and lost.)

Bush has deliberately cultivated a straight-talking brand in recent years that he will no doubt use to contrast himself with both Romney and Christie. Earlier this year, he called illegal border crossings an "act of love" by immigrants seeking better lives for their families. He has stood by his support of Common Core educational standards, which the Republican base treats with a hefty dose of suspicion.

The cost of each of those stands is rising. President Barack Obama's executive action easing deportations has resulted in the usual -- a stampede of Republicans opposing whatever Obama supports. For the past few years, the Republican Party has had a split personality on immigration. Not anymore. Obama's action ensures that the GOP will feature an anti-immigrant cast in 2016.

Common Core doesn't generate the same level of vitriol. But Bush's rivals will work hard to heighten the outrage. Right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin mapped out the attack in a column last year, denouncing Bush as a condescending elitist in terms generally reserved for pointy-headed liberals: "If you question Jeb Bush and his Big Business/Big Government cronies, you stand foursquare against student achievement and intellectual rigor," Malkin seethed. "Don’t you know Jeb Bush cares more about your children than you do?"

Unlike Christie and Romney, two guys who talk tough but shrink from confrontation with the party base, Bush seems determined to run as someone who really does call it as he sees it. It's an admirable stance and perhaps Bush is sufficiently authentic that it's the only one possible for him. Call it the audacity of hope. For there is no evidence that his party is eager for anything like straight talk.

After all, there's a reason Romney's presidential run devolved into caricature a little more than two years ago. He and his strategists concluded that conservative truths and good will were no match for conservative myths and enmities. Romney changed himself to suit the party. Bush appears to be demanding that the party now change to suit him. Audacious indeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net