Jeb Bush is not running for president.
And he’s not not running for president.
Let’s just say Bush is jogging en route to the campaign track. The former Florida governor is getting ready, pre-campaigning. In dramatic terms, he’s backstage mulling whether his campaign is to be or not to be.
“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ here, don’t get me wrong,” Bush said Monday at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington. “I’ve got to really do a lot of soul-searching.”
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There’s little doubt Bush would love to be president. The actual running is the issue. Bush’s Monday comments concerned not his potential presidency but his potential candidacy.
“Can I do it where the sacrifice for my family is tolerable?” Bush wondered. “It’s a big sacrifice, because it’s a pretty ugly business right now.”
Among his top concerns: his spotlight-shunning wife and his daughter, who struggled with drug addiction a dozen years ago, about the same time as his last campaign.
Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and a nonstop cable news cycle that cater to angry and unyielding electronic political tribes. The center does not hold in Washington politics. Democrats have moved left. The GOP base has gyred so far right that the conservative Bush is considered a moderate to many tea partiers, chiefly because of his advocacy for immigration and education reform.
Bush knows he might not be prepared to deal with the centrifugal forces of today’s politics.
“Do I have the skills to do it in a way that tries to lift people’s spirits and not get sucked into the vortex?” Bush asked.
Good question. Bush’s answer appears to be more yes than no. Here are the five signs that, contrary to what people like me once thought, make Bush appear more likely to run than not:
No more media mosh pit
Jeb Bush was once drawn to one vortex: impromptu press conferences, or “gaggles.”
While governor from 1999-2007, Bush was one of the best politicians in America to cover. He had a point of view. And he gave it. He loved the thrust-and-parry of question-and-answer sessions.
Before Florida Cabinet meetings, the press would assemble at the foot of the Capitol basement’s stairs where Bush dived into the media mosh pit. Facts, statistics, soundbites flowed (unlike his less-forthcoming successors, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott).
At the end of Cabinet meetings, it was the same thing. Same with other events throughout the week. And it was the same after Bush left office. One colleague who now works in Washington once told me that a colleague was baffled at Bush’s approachability, intellect and willingness to say whatever seemed to be on his mind.
Knife sharpens on stone; Jeb sharpened on reporters. Ask a dull question, and Bush cut you.
But now, Bush avoids most press gaggles. The guy who once bragged that he could tell the truth because he’s “not running for anything” has dispensed with that boast — along with his freedom to say whatever comes to mind.
In March, when Bush keynoted a Broward Workshop business event in Davie, he played hide and seek with the press. He escaped by ducking out a back door at the Signature Grand. And on Tuesday, after a U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Bush waited till the press wasn’t looking and tore out.
A few reporters chased Bush as he hustled down the Biltmore stairway to the security-controlled office he maintains nearby.
“What I said in there, that’s what I have to say,” Bush said.
Not only were Bush’s evasiveness and alacrity noteworthy, so was his frame.
Bush has never been obese, but the 6’4” 61-year-old gained a little more weight than he’d prefer. On Tuesday, he looked his trimmest in years. One source said he has a new personal trainer and has lost 15 pounds in recent weeks. Bush also had knee surgery recently and needs to keep his weight down to minimize the stress.
A trimmer physique makes it easier to walk. And run for president. In today’s cruel spotlight of high-definition TV, thin is more in than ever.
“It looks like you’re running for president,” I said. “You’ve lost weight.”
New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin added that one of Bush’s longtime friends, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, once said his presidential ambitions could best be gauged by his weight loss.
Bush opened his blue suit jacket and looked at his waist.
“I’m going to need to lose a lot more weight if I run for president,” Bush chuckled before ducking into his office.
Rhetoric is the reality
Bush’s back-to-back speeches in Washington on Monday and Coral Gables Tuesday were just the latest signs of how serious he is about running for president.
“So I’m thinking about runnin’ for president,” he said Monday.
The style of his speeches was telling, too.
On Monday, he ticked off five domestic policy issues: energy, regulation, the tax code, immigration and education. He also mentioned entitlement reform, but suggested it would be too heavy of a lift until the first five were accomplished.
On Tuesday, Bush pivoted to foreign policy. He offered more general precepts than policies, but ticked off seven points: a foreign policy with “humility,” taking a harder line with phony democracies, strengthening existing alliances, acting tougher but talking less, avoiding publicly disclosure of war-time deadlines, boosting military and espionage spending and increasing free trade.
Leaving aside his policies’ substance, the one-two-three digestible nature of the speeches had a campaign feel. Five-point plans and seven-point precepts are the bolts of a campaign platform.
Much of what Bush said wasn’t new for him. He has made similar speeches before.
But he knew the media are watching. Rather than merely talking about Cuba policy to a largely Cuban exile community, he purposely laid out a foreign policy speech that barely mentioned the island 90 miles south and that the press would see as signs of campaigning.
Shadow campaign meetings
Only so much can be read into Bush’s speeches or their timing, however.
In the 2014 cycle, Bush seemed to be on the campaign trail every two weeks or so, raising money for GOP candidates for Senate or governor, cutting ads or giving speeches. Bush’s travel schedule is a barometer for measuring his political ambitions, some suggest.
Bush makes part of his living on the speaking circuit. At a December 2011 fundraiser for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Bush joked that his real home address was in an airplane. In 2012, some thought his travel-and-speaking schedule indicated presidential ambitions. Bush denied it. And he didn’t run.
Bush’s speeches clearly have a political benefit, as does his Foundation for Excellence in Education. The foundation precedes his current presidential ambitions, but it doubles as a campaign-machine-in-waiting for Bush.
In November, when Bush gave a foundation speech in Washington, his longtime confidante Sally Bradshaw had presidential talks with Rob Collins and Liesl Hickey, the respective executive directors of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, Martin first reported in the Times. He also reported that Bush had earlier reached out to Lindsey Graham, senator in early GOP primary state South Carolina, and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s finance director Spencer Zwick.
Bush’s team said nothing about the Times report. In contrast, a Bush spokeswoman knocked down a Real Clear Politics story last week that claimed his associates were reaching out to unnamed “strategists” in early state New Hampshire.
During Bush’s November education speech, he softened some of his criticisms aimed at those who bash the Common Core Educational Standards, derided by some conservatives as “Obama-core.”
He won’t back away from his advocacy, though, and Bush said Monday a candidate needs to be ready “to lose the primary to win the general [election] without violating your principles.”
That statement was treated in Washington like a Zen koan. If he’ll be a candidate, Bush’s positioning puzzles a portion of the D.C. media establishment.
“Bush has not abandoned or amended his support for immigration reform and Common Core educational standards, and both are deal-breakers with the far right,” A.B. Stoddard, a columnist for The Hill, wrote last week in predicting that Bush isn’t running.
But the Washington Post’s Dan Balz divined something different from the same speech: “what Bush was saying is that the best candidates are those who know what they believe, are not afraid to take risks to articulate those convictions and, in some measure, use their campaign to help redefine their party rather than becoming a prisoner of party orthodoxies and constituencies.”
Another factor to consider: Stubbornness.
Rather than spook Bush, the criticisms over his immigration and education positions could perversely inspire him to run. Or not. No one really knows.
Even Bush’s brother.
“I have no clue where his head is now,” former President George W. Bush told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “By the way, people say ‘Convince your brother to run.’ You know, you can’t convince him to run. Only he can make the decision.
“And pushing him doesn’t help, by the way.”