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Thursday, Dec 25, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: Is Jeb the GOP establishment’s answer for 2016?

BY JOE O’NEILL
Special correspondent

Published:

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The orchestrations, subplots and serious concerns are well underway.

Republican establishment types want back in the White House in the worse way. And the best way to expedite this – and ultimately beat Hillary Clinton – is not, as they see it, via a tea party-favored candidate or a Libertarian. Presidential elections are won closer to the ideological center.

They know that Ted Cruz or Rand Paul have appeal and activist followers, to be sure, and can play well in the primaries. But they are beyond skeptical about how that plays out in a general election against Clinton’s brand name and demographic appeal.

Cruz is the avatar of tea partying zealotry. That’s not the stuff of a viable 2016 presidential nominee.

And seeing Paul play University of California at Berkeley had to be anxiety inducing for traditional GOPsters. Being well received in a lefty citadel is beyond anomaly. Paul’s anti-NSA surveillance pitch and anti-hawkish, foreign-policy take went over well.

But the establishment knows that when Paul gets away from that limited script, he becomes much more problematic to mainstream voters.

So where do these establishment types – and their money – go for a viable candidate with appeal beyond a conservative party’s right wing?

Up until “Bridgegate,” New Jersey’s Chris Christie, a wide-profile Republican governor in a blue state, was increasingly looking like their guy. Now he looks like the chief executive bully in a state with ugly, pay-back politics.

So, to whom does the Republican establishment turn? More and more, we’re hearing the name of Jeb Bush, the only two-term Republican governor of America’s pre-eminent swing state.

He governed as a wonky-smart conservative, is associated with educational accountability, is supportive of immigration reform, is married to an Hispanic and is bilingual. He’s comfortably Republican enough to win the super PAC money game. He has a case. And it’s possibly now or never for “W’s” younger brother, now 60.

Bush certainly is saying all the right things. He’s “thinking about it,” for sure. And he’s saying it while traveling extensively – from stumping for political candidates and doing media interviews to attending events ranging from a Broward Workshop business breakfast to the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) gathering in Washington to a Las Vegas VIP dinner arranged by the deep-pocketed casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Reportedly, Adelson’s spending on the 2012 presidential race ran to nine figures.

And when Bush speaks, he’s not afraid to go beyond the red meat rhetoric of tax cuts and pro-growth policies. He will chastise elements of the party about “inclusion” and chide those who are seemingly “anti-everything.” The establishment, which yearns for broader appeal, fully approves.

This, arguably, is the modus operandi of a pre-candidate out to send signals as crunch time nears.

And those in a position to matter have been noticing. Several nationwide polls and the University of Virginia’s prestigious Center for Politics have shown Bush as an early frontrunner for 2016.

And yet.

For starters, Jeb still lugs around that devalued Bush surname. Had he not narrowly lost to Lawton Chiles in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Jeb would have been the chosen brother in 2000 – not his less talented, older sibling, George W. Bush. Jeb is the only Republican candidate who can’t truly – and convincingly – distance himself from “W’s” track record: from squandered surplus and ill-timed deregulation to an unfunded prescription-drug benefit and an unnecessary war.

And the prospect that three of the last five presidents would be Bushes smacks of more than political aristocracy. It connotes entitlement. And we know how the GOP feels about that term.

While Jeb Bush was known as the “education governor” and went to the pedagogical and political mattresses for accountability, there is another spin. It’s more than Common Core standards. He is synonymous with FCAT and the A-to-F school grading system. These, along with the Jeb-supported parent “trigger bill,” are no longer political winners.

The public, not just increasingly demoralized teachers, realizes that teaching-to-the-standardized-test scenarios are counterproductive. Your basic business model can’t be imposed on schools.

Moreover, Jeb has other issues militating against the ultimate, political ambition. Self-serving cherry-pickers will weigh in:

* It will be noted that he led the charge to repeal the high-speed rail amendment that would have connected Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Then was “surprised” and “taken aback” by Gov. Rick Scott’s refusal of federal high-speed rail funds without allowing bids.

* Jeb’s compromised position on off-shore drilling will come up. Many still prefer that he be flat-out against it. Others think he didn’t go far enough. Not a net winner.

* Jeb signed “Terri’s Law” – later declared unconstitutional – that would have given government the right to the ultimate intervention in the case of the comatose Terri Schiavo.

* And Jeb presided over 21 executions, not considered a moderate number, and zero commutations. On balance, not helpful.

Sure, all of the serious contenders are flawed. That’s the human condition. But a party all atwitter over accommodating its grandstanding ideologues and establishment pragmatists is fundamentally flawed. But it does have those super PACs.

The upshot: A Bush-Paul ticket, anyone?

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