WASHINGTON — The human kindling that makes up the flammable Republican base may soon burst into flames, again. Portions of that excitable cohort are looking — some with fawnlike eyes filled with hurt, others with sparks shooting from eyes narrowed like gun slits — askance at other Republicans urging Jeb Bush to seek the 2016 presidential nomination.
A candidacy by Florida’s former governor would be desirable. But if Republicans want to avoid intra-party carnage, they should be very careful about doing what The Washington Post recently reported: “Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race.”
How “behind the scenes” is an enterprise reported on the Post’s front page? The last time there was anything like a draft was the nomination of Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in 1952, whose acceptance speech to the Democratic convention contained cringe-inducing treacle:
“I would not seek your nomination for the presidency, because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination. … I have asked the Merciful Father — the Father of us all — to let this cup pass from me, but from such dread responsibility one does not shrink in fear, in self-interest, or in false humility. So, ‘If this cup may not pass from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.’”
American voters showed what they thought of the reluctant Stevenson posing as the crucified Jesus. He lost 39 of the then 48 states.
It would not be a moral failing for Bush to decide against enduring the marathon gantlet of presidential politics. He will not, however, have the nomination handed to him on a silver salver. And the nomination fight would be especially bruising because Bush has been admirably forthright, but certainly impolitic, about two divisive issues — immigration and the Common Core national education standards for grades K through 12.
He wisely favors immigration reform responsive to the needs of the U.S. workforce and the realities of the 12 million who are not here legally but are neither going to “self-deport” or be deported. His enthusiasm for the Common Core is misplaced but conservatives, in judging it, should judge Bush with a generosity he has earned by his exemplary record as an education reformer favoring school choice.
Unfortunately, there are too many Republicans who seem to derive more satisfaction from burning Republicans at the stake than from defeating Democrats. And there are too many other Republicans who think their task is to save the party from its base of principled activists.
Bush is fluent in Spanish and accomplished at courting the approximately 17 percent of the Florida electorate that is Hispanic: He received 61 percent of their votes in 1998 and almost that much in 2002. The time is ripe for Republicans to do as well with Hispanics as Jeb Bush’s brother did in 2000. Political analyst Michael Barone writes in the Washington Examiner: “By my estimate, about one-third of the homeowners foreclosed on in the years just after the housing price collapse were Hispanics.” And since the Obamacare rollout, during which the Spanish-language version of the website was completely inoperative for weeks, “the president’s job approval has declined more among Hispanics — 23 percentage points — than among any other demographic group.” It should be possible for Republicans to find a nominee who can do as well as George W. Bush did in winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
Republicans cannot be too frequently reminded that their problem in presidential politics is the “blue wall” — the 18 states and the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic in at least six consecutive elections, and have 242 electoral votes. So Republicans should welcome to their nomination competition any candidate who might remove from the blue wall such bricks as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Bush, burdened by a damaged family brand, might not be the best potential nominee on the deep Republican bench. He does, however, deserve a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate. He will not get this if he allows himself to become perceived as — if his supporters present him as — the choice of fastidious Republicans who think the party’s base is the party’s problem.
— George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.