In an early scene of the movie The Contender, President Jackson Evans (played by Jeff Bridges) tells Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (played by William Petersen) that he, the governor, is the future of the Democratic Party… and always will be.
(It’s one of my favorite movie lines ever, one that has broad application: “You’re the future of [insert organization name]. And you always will be.)
Jeb Bush has been the future of the Republican Party for a long time now. And perhaps he always will be. It’s not clear that his time will ever come.
Jon Chait wrote a post yesterday in which he stated that “[Jeb] Bush is clearly engaged in an effort to position himself as the next leader of the Republican Party.
Chait’s argument is essentially that Bush, anticipating a possible Romney loss in November, is “setting himself as the cure” to what ails the party by “publicly urging Republicans to moderate their tone toward Latinos and to embrace immigration reform” and more generally by “follow[ing] the example of his brother’s 2000 campaign, offering a great deal of moderation in tone and very little in substance.” In other words, Bush, who “speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-American wife,” understands that his party is doomed unless it successfully courts the Latino vote and that it can’t do that by taking a hardline stand on undocumented immigration of the kind Romney took in courting the party’s right-wing base during the primaries.
And Chait thinks this is what Republicans will be looking for in 2016, should Romney lose:
If you try to imagine the Republican consensus after a potential losing election, it will look like this. It will recognize that its harsh partisan rhetoric turned off voters, and will urgently want to woo Latinos, while holding on to as much as possible of the party’s domestic policy agenda. And oh, by the way, the party will be casting about for somebody to lead it.
I agree with Chait’s assessment that “[t]he Latino vote is both growing in size and seems to be tilting ever more strongly toward the Democrats, a combination that will rapidly make the electoral map virtually unwinnable,” but disagree with his prediction of what the Republican consensus would look like. Indeed, on that second point I think he has it completely wrong.
While there’s no doubt that Bush would be a formidable candidate in 2016, not least because he would likely have much of the party establishment behind him, including many of the big-time donors (along with the likes of Karl Rove, who organizes those donors), there’s also no doubt, I think, that the party will continue to drift rightward with or without Romney in the White House.
A Romney loss wouldn’t send a message to the party that it should lose the “harsh partisan rhetoric,” whether on immigration or anything else, and certainly wouldn’t bring about the return of sensible Republican moderation, or what passed for moderation once upon a time, it would be a clear indication to the extremists in the ascendancy, those purging non-absolutists from their ranks, from Dear Leader Rush all the way down to the grassroots, that the party erred badly in going with what Newt Gingrich called “a timid Massachusetts moderate” and that the way to win in future would be to go with proven ideologues, with true believers of the right.
In other words, a Romney loss wouldn’t mean a turn to Jeb Bush, or to a similarly pragmatic and non-absolutist conservative like Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie, it would mean a turn to someone like Marco Rubio. Indeed, the only reason Republicans didn’t go with such a conservative this year is that no one — not Gingrich, not Santorum, not Perry — emerged as a credible right-wing alternative to the shamelessly pandering Romney.
Sure, Republicans quickly fell into lockstep behind Romney, but that’s to be expected of Republicans. It doesn’t mean the party likes him. And many in the party will be quick to blame him should he lose, just as they blamed John McCain last time, but worse. You really think Sarah Palin and her right-wing ilk will say to themselves, “Let’s get behind Jeb Bush, he’s the right sort of bipartisan moderate to lead us after that whole Romney debacle”? Of course not. They’ll be out for blood and they’ll be looking to nominate one of their own in 2016. (It doesn’t help Jeb’s cause that he’s criticizing today’s GOP, even going so far as to say that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be welcome in it.)
Again, this is not to say that Bush would necessarily lose. 2016 is a long way away, and it’s possible, if not likely, that the Republican Party as a whole would respond with some sense to a loss in 2012, maybe even that it would come to appreciate the significant demographic shifts that are turning the electorate against it.
But I doubt it.
The party may indeed be looking for someone new to lead it after November. I just have a hard time believing it’ll be Jeb Bush, whose time always seems to be right around the corner.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)