Opinion

Time to deploy Jeb

Theo Caldwell Investor and Broadcaster

What if the Republican Party could field a presidential nominee able to guarantee victory in the state of Florida, and perhaps across the entire South? What if this person also possesses twice the executive governing experience as the GOP’s current front-runner, Mitt Romney, and is broadly considered the best Republican governor in recent decades? Finally, what if this person espouses precisely the limited government philosophy for which dispirited Republicans yearn?

To wit, what if the Republican Party turned its lowly eyes to Jeb Bush?

In the wake of Super Tuesday, with Romney capturing the grand prize of Ohio, Rick Santorum making a hat-trick of Oklahoma, North Dakota and Tennessee, Newt Gingrich winning Georgia, and Ron Paul giving everyone another stern lecture, no one is satisfied.

More than this, there is real and growing concern that none of these candidates, including and especially Romney, can defeat Barack Obama in November.

The question becomes, then, could Jeb Bush beat Barack Obama, especially if he did not secure the nomination until the GOP Convention at the end of August? Boy howdy, he could.

As the first Republican governor re-elected in Florida since Reconstruction, Jeb could carry the Sunshine State with his little finger. The rest of the South, including Virginia and North Carolina (which wandered haplessly into Democratic territory in 2008), would be pleased as punch to pull the lever for a proper conservative. Hence, Jeb removes the South from contention in a way Romney, in particular, could not.

From there, Bush’s record of accomplishment and straightforward philosophy on the role of the public sector — he maintains that government should do nothing that is advertised in the Yellow Pages — would create a welcome contrast with Obama, and rekindle enthusiasm among Republican voters.

Apart from the logistical challenges of launching a run at this late date (discussed below), there are two major impediments to Bush’s presidential candidacy: branding and will.

Branding is the easy bit. There are many who negatively associate Jeb Bush with the presidencies of his brother and father. Years ago, after I published a newspaper column extoling Jeb’s success as Florida governor and suggesting he would make a potent president, one fellow responded, “I wouldn’t listen to another Bush if it were burning.”

But consider, gentle reader, your own parents and siblings. Would it be fair, or accurate, for folks to suppose you think and act precisely as members of your family do? Whatever your opinion of the previous Bush presidencies, as Floridians can attest, Jeb is his own man.

As to the deeper challenge, that of will, the man simply does not want to do it, as he has said as much.

On a personal and professional basis, Gov. Bush has for some time been profoundly tolerant of my nonsense, and my incessant needling that he run for president. On that latter point, I am nowhere near alone, as myriad Republicans have been trying to coax him into the race for some time.

Jeb has allowed me to interview him for television and print, and, on-camera about a year ago, he was plain as can be in telling me he was not going to be a candidate. The specific reason he gave then was that he does not favor ethanol subsidies, which suggests he would not be competitive in Iowa. But the Iowa caucuses are long over, Santorum won (sort of) and, even if Bush’s perfectly defensible position on this issue caused him to lose the state’s six Electoral College votes, he could still muddle along to victory.

As the declared GOP candidates continue to go about the country, stirring up apathy, Jeb Bush is among the pantheon of dream candidates Republicans call forth, along with Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and others. But there is no substitute for Jeb. Indiana is an important state, a presidential bellwether, but it is not the must-win that Florida is. And as an articulate champion of freedom, with a sterling executive record, Republicans have no one who can hold a candle to him.

So, with a campaign in full swing, several hundred delegates already allotted, filing deadlines for state primaries and caucuses long past, and an ideal candidate who emphatically does not want the job, how could Jeb become president?

This is what conventions are for.

Romney supporters aver that neither Santorum nor Gingrich can hope to overtake him in the delegate count, and this is probably true. But they don’t have to. All Santorum, Gingrich and Paul must do is garner enough delegates to prevent Romney from reaching 1,144 before the convention. Then, with Romney denied a first-ballot victory, a Byzantine system of state and district rules kicks in, allowing many delegates to meander off and support someone else.

Jeb is someone else. And, with Romney et al. having been examined and found wanting by Republican voters, not to mention the GOP Convention being held in Tampa, Florida (an astoundingly happy coincidence), Gov. Bush would be the natural choice to lead the party. Even the most reluctant candidate — and, with his many polite yet firm Sherman-esque statements, Jeb may just be that — could not resist such a confluence of events and the acclamation of his party.

Conservative pundit Rich Lowry refers to Romney as the candidate of “Eh, I guess.” That about sums up Republican enthusiasm for the moneyed yet milquetoast former Massachusetts governor. I have been sharply critical of Romney’s tepid economic plan — and his recent announcement of a 20 percent reduction in marginal tax rates does little to change my view — while maintaining that he could at least defeat Obama. Lately, though, even that seems in doubt.

This column has called Romney the Republican Al Gore, several others have noted his similarity to John Kerry, and these are various ways of making the same observation; that is, the negative appeal of phoniness is bipartisan and powerful.

Romney is tough to take. I say that as someone who has watched him for many years, and who advocated his selection as Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008 (but what a loss to reality television that would have been). It comes across in speeches and debates. At the end of particularly pat answers, Romney thanks his questioner with the smugness of those South Park characters driving around in their hybrid cars: “Thaaaaanks.”

Recently, in a thumbless grasp for the support of rural voters, Romney said he is always “delighted” to go hunting. Back that up for a moment. You outdoorsy types among our readership in particular, please give this scenario careful thought: You are at home, the weekend is upcoming, a buddy calls and invites you hunting — is there any universe in which you would reply, “Why, I’d be delighted”?

The concern is that when general election voters get a load of Romney’s routine, they will inevitably be as put off as we nonplussed Republicans.

Santorum would make a newsworthy Health and Human Services secretary, but it is hard to imagine him becoming president. As for Gingrich, who remains this column’s top choice among the currently available candidates (Newt’s single term could be as consequential as that of the only other former speaker of the House to become president — James Polk), whether by Romney-sponsored negative advertising or the oppressive weight of his own persona, it appears he has been Newtralized.

Finally, there’s Ron Paul. There is always Ron Paul.

With Super Tuesday in the books and Republican chances looking bleaker by the day, the party must summon its ace. When the GOP gathers in Florida, it will be time to deploy Jeb Bush.

Theo Caldwell, an international investor and broadcaster, has been a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, and the Kansas City Board of Trade. He can be reached at theo@theocaldwell.com.