The Machiavellian maneuvering of a few orange cones on the George Washington Bridge has crowned Jeb Bush a contender again.
It was almost exactly a year ago, when his famously straight-talking mother, Barbara Bush, told NBC’s “Today" show that even she opposed another Bush presidency.
“There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes,” she said quite matter-of-factly in late April 2013.
The country seemed to agree. And for establishment Republicans, there appeared to be better options anyway. Sen. Marco Rubio was the fresher face, a Floridian full of hope and promise and without the baggage of a last name that polarized the country a decade earlier. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie possessed more pizazz and exhibited the steely fortitude necessary to brawl with the Democrats. The wonky Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had seen his national reputation predictably enhanced on the heels of his vice presidential run.
Having another Bush was a nice option, but not a necessity. Furthermore, there weren’t any indications he wanted it that bad anyway.
Then, what was billed as the most talented Republican presidential field in decades began to unravel. Rubio’s part in immigration reform irked the base, which punished him by exiling him to the single-digit polling desert. Then in January came questions surrounding Christie’s role in the closing of lanes on a major bridge for political retribution. He maintains his aides acted alone, but the saga still soiled his image as a truth-talking reformer and produced clouds over his management style.
At the same time, the rapid rise of a pair of perpetual Washington disrupters – Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – placed some party leaders on edge.
Almost by process of elimination, Jeb was back in contention. During the last few months, his name has begun to drop out of the mouths of donors and operatives so comfortably, it’s almost as if he’s been the front-runner all along.
But the truth is Rubio and Christie’s loss has been Jeb's gain.
In four national GOP primary polls taken in December – before the New Jersey bridge revelations – Christie scored between 16 and 19 percentage points in each, numbers good enough to lead the pack. Jeb registered between 10 and 12 percent.
Now, after weathering the eye of the bridgegate controversy, Christie’s percentage in the most recent four national GOP primary polls has dropped to between 8 and 14 percentage points. Bush, on the other hand, is now clocking in between 9 and 15 percent.
The swing is not dramatic – these 2016 Republican polls remain a muddle – but it represents a shift toward Jeb as Republicans desperately seek yet another savior of the moment.
It’s hard to imagine the movement toward Jeb without the crisis engulfing Christie.
“Christie's issues leaves the New York//Wall Street fundraising establishment searching for an alternative. Jeb is a former governor, current advisor to Barclays and a Bush. That’s comfort food for this group,” says one veteran GOP fundraiser who requested anonymity in exchange for candor.
Additionally, if Rubio wasn’t so damaged by his immigration play, Bush’s climb back up the ladder might be equally arduous. Whereas around this time a year ago, Rubio regularly sat on top of national polls well ahead of Bush, it’s now flipped. Bush now scores consistently better than his mentee.
It’s no wonder Bush would be provoked to seize the moment, which, because he holds the name Bush, only means expressing mere interest. He hasn’t made the obligatory ventures into the early primary states because, much like Hillary Clinton, he doesn’t have to. Bush allies and longtime GOP hands Sally Bradshaw, Jack Oliver and Ron Kaufman continue to talk up Bush to donors, elected officials, and of course, the media. The message: He’s more serious about it than you may think.
“The Florida, Texas, Ohio, California fundraising establishments are still unclaimed and Jeb's folks have been feeding them the ‘keep your powder dry’ line,” says the GOP fundraiser.
In outlining a potential candidacy, Jeb has wrapped his vision in optimism and realism. On Sunday, in front of a comfortable audience at his father's presidential library, he spoke about electing candidates with a “vision that is bigger and broader,” according to The New York Times.
He defended his centrist approach to immigration reform, noting that many people broke the law to enter the country out of “an act of love.” Similarly, he stood by his support of Common Core – a set of national education standards that are an anathema to conservatives – by saying he wouldn’t “run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country.” He even praised Christie as “the real deal” and “a spectacular guy.”
For Jeb, it was all roses, no thorns.
It makes sense for Jeb to present himself as the sunny-faced reluctant warrior right now – he’s removed enough from Washington to avoid its stench, yet familiar enough to Republicans to ease anxieties about the unknown.
And he may be playing the smartest card by appearing to not need the White House to complete his political career. He sees those who have assumed a more aggressive posture wounded all around him.