The “Chris Christie for President” moment may already be over.
Former allies are souring on him. His poll strength against Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical matchup has evaporated. Once-friendly media figures like Jimmy Fallon and Bruce Springsteen are mocking him, and their joint parody of “Born to Run” now has more than 4 million views on YouTube.
If Christie’s appointee David Wildstein is telling the truth when he claims evidence exists that proves the governor knew about the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and if that evidence is made public, then all the “Christie in 2016” talk is moot, because the governor will have great difficulty avoiding impeachment by the Democrat-controlled New Jersey legislature. If Wildstein is lying, Christie still has the headache of explaining why more than one of his trusted associates acted so vindictively and foolishly, and then tried to blame him.
Christie’s difficulties have caused some high-level Republican donors, bundlers, and party officials, as well as grass-roots activists, to look around for a second option for 2016. No one is writing Christie off yet, but these people feel that the high stakes of the next presidential election require a backup plan. The name that is currently highest atop their list is that of Jeb Bush, former two-term governor of Florida and son and brother of presidents.
“I’m deferring the decision until the right time, which is later this year,” Bush told reporters during a tour of a charter school in Miami last week. “The decision will be based on, ‘Can I can do it joyfully?’ Because I think we need to have candidates who can lift our spirits. It’s a pretty pessimistic country right now. And is it right for my family? I don’t even want to think about that until the right time, and that’s later on.”
Those close to the former governor say there has been no movement in any decision about a 2016 presidential bid; he will not decide until after the 2014 midterm elections. Some former colleagues think the governor is thinking seriously about it; others are skeptical. There is broad agreement that Bush is a “methodical” guy, and it would be more surprising if he wasn’t doing his due diligence about a future run than that he is.
“Bush’s speeches are getting better, tighter, and more campaigny, from what I’ve noticed,” a senior Florida Republican strategist says. “I still think Jeb is only a three-in-ten shot to go, but if you’re in his shoes, and Chris Christie has taken a huge hit in stock value — wouldn’t you wait and see? If Christie survives and runs, it’s a harder proposition by far, obviously.”
As a presidential candidate, Bush would bring a lot to the table, starting with two terms as a popular, tax-cutting governor, a reputation as a national leader on education reform and school choice, and his family’s extensive and deep-pocketed fundraising network.
Bush remains the symbolic face of the Florida Republican party. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce turned to him, out of office for seven years, to tape a commercial for David Jolly, a Republican running in a special congressional election in Pinellas County.
Last month Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times surveyed “124 of Florida’s smartest politicos” and found “some overwhelming and bipartisan consensus: Nearly 90 percent of the campaign consultants, activists, fundraisers, and lobbyists — these are Florida politicos who know Bush and Senator Marco Rubio the best — said Bush would be a stronger presidential candidate than Rubio.”
At first glance, there are three nagging impediments to a Jeb Bush run in 2016. The first is the quadrennial complaint about dynasty politics. (This complaint will lose some of its punch coming from Democrats backing Hillary Clinton.)
The second is immigration; speaking at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School last week, he insisted, “A modernized immigration system would be a catalytic converter for economic growth.”
Bush wrote a book with Clint Bolick in 2013, Immigration Wars, that declared, “A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.” In the book, Bush and Bolick recommended that illegal immigrants would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, perform community service and learn English before they could become eligible to apply for permanent legal residency — but, even then, not citizenship and the voting rights that come with it. (Some states and localities are debating legislation to permit noncitizens to vote.)
But during the book tour, Bush appeared to contradict himself, declaring on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “If you can craft that in law where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come illegally, I’m for it. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t see how you do it, but I’m not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law.”
The third issue that could cause Bush headaches as a presidential candidate is his support for Common Core. He’s not backing down, despite the controversy, declaring at a charter high school in Hialeah last week, “The aspiration ought to be: Every child should be college- or career-ready. And we should benchmark ourselves to the best in the world. The good-faith effort of Common Core State Standards and now these Florida standards is the right path to be on.”
The problem for Bush is that a vocal chunk of the conservative grassroots thinks Common Core is precisely the opposite of a “good-faith effort.”
As that senior Republican strategist puts it, “Jeb doesn’t understand the intense and growing hatred of Common Core at the grassroots. I’m telling you, it’s a red line for GOP primary voters. No amount of explaining is going to fix it, and no amount of ‘for the good of the country’ talk is going to make it saleable to them. They hate it. They loathe Common Core. I started hearing it de novo from people not in our world of 24/7 political fury but ordinary types who are reacting to what their kids are bringing home.”
Bush won’t be speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, but he spoke at the event’s Ronald Reagan Dinner last year. Perhaps when your last name is Bush, every public appearance sounds like a test-drive of a stump speech. But if Bush does declare a presidential bid, he won’t have to change much.
His concluding words that night: “I see our path forward as conservatives, and I believe the future is extraordinarily bright. . . . As to the rumors of the demise of the conservative movement, as my dad said, ‘Put away the harps!’ We have within our grasp the means by which our country will reclaim its momentum, leave its indelible imprint on this remarkable century, and secure a better future for all. Let’s do it!”
Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog for National Review Online, where this was posted.