The establishment wing of the Republican Party now sees three prospective presidential candidates fighting for their support. Only one of them – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – has formally expressed interest in exploring a run. Try as he might to grab the spotlight early, he has to wrestle it from two major players from the 2012 cycle: GOP nominee Mitt Romney and the barnstorming New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Bush clearly has eyes for the White House – and with a father and brother as former presidents, why not?. And he certainly brings many benefits in the eyes of the donors whose support candidates seek in the “invisible primary”. Firstly and most obviously, his surname attracts donors who are attracted to the Bush brand and anticipate how the name recognition factor can play among voters. Secondly, he was the governor of one of the swingiest of swing states: Florida. The word “was” is also key here because former officeholders tend to generate goodwill among the public. As much as the public may like what Obama recently called the “new car smell,” they also respect an elder statesman (and, by the way, a man who can distinguish himself from his older brother).
Thirdly, Bush’s Hispanic bona fides could make him popular with the general electorate. If he can prove his electoral prowess across Florida’s geopolitical divide – the Miami metropolitan area and almost everywhere else – then that ability can translate into national success.
All of those advantages, of course, are counterbalanced. Some of his advantages are double-edged swords. For example, his accomplishments as governor may not be as fresh in the minds of voters, but time could render an unfavorable verdict on his stewardship.
More saliently, many primary voters could agree with Barbara Bush: “We’ve had enough Bushes.” The surname may aggravate the Tea Party faction and other populists who are angry over a perceived oligarchy. The argument works more against the Bushes than against the Clintons. Lest we forget, the latter “dynasty” was started just over two decades ago, when an obscure Arkansas governor with an everyman charm stunningly rose to national prominence. Supporters could also argue that the Clintons are not quite a dynasty but a governing duo, remembering President Clinton’s “two for the price of one” rhetoric. The Bush clan certainly comes the closest to a dynasty in presidential politics.
Mitt Romney, who has changed his mind from fervent denial to “maybe,” stands in a similar position. He can sway donors with name recognition and a very good presidential performance. He can attract voters in the general electorate, especially since many recent polls indicate that they would give Romney a second look. If the buyer’s remorse that spread in 2013 and 2014 still holds up, then time may prove kinder to Romney.
Ironically for a climate where voters complain about rampant polarization and gridlock, Romney’s “flip-flopping” flexibility may undermine his campaign again. He may be as flexible as many voters are – what man never changes his mind? – but any hint of inauthenticity may cost him some of the goodwill he earned over the last couple of years. If he chooses to run again, he needs to further showcase the genuine, caring family man of the recent Netflix documentary Mitt. This side may not garner him the votes of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT), himself a presidential prospect, or feminists like Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan, but it has earned him their praise. In a media landscape where personality often trumps substance, Romney the family man may prove authentic enough to offset the narrative of Romney the corporate cyborg.
But the anti-Washington zeitgeist also entails uneasiness – if not complete animosity – towards other familiar names and “has-beens”. The party may instead want to chase current governors – those from the 2009-2010 crop. Examples include Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mike Pence of Michigan, and especially John Kasich of that swingiest swing state, Ohio. The foremost among these, of course, is Christie, an exciting everyman who always seems to want to be the elephant in the room.
In the current climate, Christie has the advantage of incumbency. He is relatively fresh, especially compared to Bush and Romney, and has demonstrated that he can work in a bipartisan manner. No wonder that many party insiders wanted to see him run in 2012.
If his sagging poll numbers in New Jersey are any indication, he may face a home- state hurdle that only two presidential candidates have won without overcoming. The last candidate to lose his home state but win the election, coincidentally, lost New Jersey in his successful re-election bid. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, Christie could overcome this obstacle, but he probably would have had a better chance in 2012. Yes, when his brand was fresher and not as sullied by the conception of New Jersey politicians. Exhibit A: the George Washington Bridge fiasco, which local comedian Jon Stewart denounced… as a disappointing instance of corruption in the state of Abscam.
Christie’s colleagues nonetheless join many pundits in interpreting his latest moves and speeches as signs of a run. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney called Christie’s recent address a “State of the State about nothing.”
Except, he added, “He’s running for president.” His incumbency may interfere with his 2016 campaign, and vice versa. It will not be enough to campaign while governing, or campaign from the governor’s seat. He has tried to balance governing with campaigning in the last year, when he served as the chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. His poll numbers suggest that he spent too much political capital on the national stage, despite numerous problems in New Jersey, to wit: credit downgrades, a crumbling infrastructure, and unemployment that trails the national average.
The actors who drive the “invisible primary” – and, later, those who vote in the actual primaries – have to weigh in these three candidates the advantages of the political old guard and the new. Known faces or strong new recruits. A tested (and sometimes tainted) track record or an ongoing one. Personality versus substance. In short, where the balance between old and new will lie in a way that will present a compelling case for the American people.