But what will be on those headrests in 2016?

Photographer: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

How Romney Helps Bush

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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He didn’t mean to. Mitt Romney’s tentative entry into the 2016 Republican presidential fray was intended to stop Jeb Bush in his tracks, freezing the drift toward Bush by the Republican establishment-donor-class-realist-pragmatists or whatever you want to call the guys accustomed to calling the party's shots. Instead, it’s more likely that Romney has done Bush a big favor.

Bush has a couple sets of political problems, those of his own making and those he can’t help. The self-manufactured problems include his lack of rage toward undocumented immigrants, the federal government and President Barack Obama. A modicum of rage is now the price of entry to Republican primaries, yet Bush has so far refused to pay it. Worse, Bush has refused to modify his policy views on Common Core (in favor) and undocumented immigrants (empathetic), which are out of step -- perhaps by two or three or four steps  -- with the party base. He’s not only running as a sensible conservative, but also as a sensitive one. The base distrusts both qualities.

Bush’s other main basket of problems concerns his very being. He is a figure from the past, having left office eight years ago -- before the Republican retreat into massive resistance against the federal government. He's the brother of a president who waged failure -- two hapless, meandering wars, a near-Depression, budget deficits -- on a historic scale. And he’s the son of another president whose name is Republican shorthand for “sellout.”

If Bush and Romney both stay in the race there will be competition for donors and for ideological terrain. But as Philip Klein pointed out in the Washington Examiner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Bush and Romney will destroy each other, as some conservatives hope. It more likely means that one will vanquish the other and emerge strengthened -- the better to grind down the base’s underfinanced favorites in a second round.

Meanwhile Romney helps Bush mitigate his greatest vulnerabilities.

Old? Bush (61) is younger than Romney (67) and looks like a fresh face compared with a candidate who has twice tried and failed to become president, and who wasn’t even much loved after he had won the 2012 nomination. Bush is personally untainted by failure -- electoral or governmental; his executive reign over Florida was widely considered a conservative success.

Similarly, Bush’s deviations from Republican orthodoxy appear less toxic when he is compared with the paterfamilias of Obamacare. Over the course of his career, Romney’s true north has been highly variable. Bush is attempting -- we’ll see if it lasts -- to establish himself as a direct contrast to such flip-floppery. (Bush knows that the base knows that he knows that the base knows that his stands on Common Core and immigrants hurt him.)

Bush’s principles offend the base -- but perhaps not as much as Romney’s pandering does. The base never confused Romney’s embarrassing entreaties with fidelity; for the Tea Party wing of the party, Romney is just as much of an ideological threat as Bush. And his mere presence in the public sphere makes Bush’s spine appear straighter, stronger.

Romney’s efforts to be the establishment horse in 2016 have surely complicated Bush’s plans to be the same. But instead of undermining Bush’s already dodgy chances, Romney may have just enhanced them. 

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