Campaign kickoffs aren’t what they once were, given the distractions of the time and speed with which one political event overtakes another. But for Jeb Bush, this week’s launch couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
For the past week, much of the media’s attention on Bush has focused on the internal machinations of his staff and political operation. Monday’s announcement provided Bush with a welcome circuit breaker, and he took full advantage of the moment.
His speech, delivered to an energized audience at Miami Dade College, was peppered with criticism of President Obama, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the progressive establishment and the lobbyist-dominated Washington culture.
It was both personal and thematic, short on policy details but not on offering a road map to the kind of campaign he will run and the kind of president he would like to be. It was an opportunity for Bush to refocus attention on himself – and it was a call to Republicans to look more fully at who he is and isn’t and at what he has to offer.
In his telling, what makes him stand out in a crowded field is a combination of executive experience as a governor, conservative values, a compassionate heart, a commitment to small government and what he described as the instincts of a reformer prepared to disrupt the “pampered elites” in Washington.
Implicit in his message, and explicit in the words of some of the speakers who preceded him on the stage at Miami Dade College, was one more thing that he and his team believe sets him apart. That is the claim that he would be better positioned to win a general election and restore Republicans to the White House than any of his rivals.
That is, if he can defeat those rivals to win the GOP nomination. That is the central question surrounding his candidacy. He carries a famous name and would make history by becoming the third member of one family to be elected president.
On Monday, Bush made a special point of debunking any suggestion that he believes he has a head start or should be seen as anything approaching a front-runner or favorite for the nomination.
“Not a one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family or family narrative,” he said. “It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open – exactly as a contest for president should be.”
Bush’s formal announcement ended six months of an exhibition season that did as much to underscore the obstacles ahead of him in his quest to win the White House as they did to highlight the reality that he will have certain advantages in the months ahead.
He may not be the dominant GOP candidate that some people mistakenly thought anyone with the Bush name and network should be. But neither is anyone named Bush merely one more candidate in a crowded field of contenders, regardless of what the polls show.
Those polls show a compacted field, bunched at the top and with many others close behind. But Bush still has assets that could give him the staying power to win what shapes up as an extremely competitive contest.
One is money. When he finally reports on the results of his tireless, aggressive fundraising of the first months of this year, it is likely to outdistance his rivals, perhaps by significant millions. If a Bush-allied super PAC falls short of the $100 million threshold that has been talked about, it nonetheless is likely to get people’s attention, particularly his rivals’.
Bush also knows what he thinks about issues and is comfortable talking about them – whether they be domestic matters that were his bread and butter in Tallahassee during his two terms as governor or some national security concerns that are newer but not exactly foreign to him. That is an asset not to be underestimated over the course of a long and rigorous campaign.
He faces resistance inside his party – hesitation born of a belief among some Republicans that no matter what they think of the presidencies of his father, George H.W. Bush, or his brother George W. Bush, a third Bush presidency is simply one too many.
He faces resistance from other Republicans who doubt his authenticity as a conservative. His advisers say he will try to appeal to every segment of the party, and they believe he has something for each of them.
There were hints of that Monday, from talk of his fiscal conservatism to mentions of religious freedom and battles between Christian conservatives and the Obama administration to tough talk to appeal to national security hawks.
But it is Bush’s differences with party orthodoxy that could disrupt his campaign for the nomination. He differs with others in his party on the issue of Common Core, though not on education reform more generally. He talked about taking on the education unions Monday but did not mention Common Core, other than to say that the federal government should not be in charge of curriculum standards.
He also parts company with most of his rivals on immigration. He supports a path to legal status for those here illegally, but opposes a path to citizenship, which Obama, Clinton and most Democrats favor.
His prepared text made no mention of immigration, but he could not hide from it. Two-thirds of the way through the speech, a group of young people stood up in the balcony with T-shirts that spelled out “Legal status is not enough.” In response, Bush said that the next president would enact immigration reform.
Bush pledged an optimistic campaign and said he would run everywhere, “speaking to everyone, keeping my word, facing the issues without flinching, and staying true to what I believe. I will take nothing and no one for granted. I will run with heart and I will run to win.”
He has no other choice. What the past months have shown is that he will face one of the most competitive contests Republicans have seen in many campaigns. He has filled his campaign coffers and realigned his staff for the battles ahead. Now it comes back to him. Can he make the sale to a wary party?