The long national mystery is finally over. After months of pretending to deliberate over whether he wants to run the free world, Jeb Bush confirmed Monday that he is, in fact, running for president in 2016. "I will campaign as I would serve, going everywhere, speaking to everyone, keeping my word, facing the issues without flinching, and staying true to what I believe," he told an audience at Miami Dade College. "I will take nothing and no one for granted. I will run with heart. I will run to win."
For those of you who thought Bush already was running for president, your confusion is understandable. Ever since he announced on Facebook last December that he would "actively explore" a White House bid, the younger brother of George W. has been campaigning as if the decision was already made, which, of course, it was. By holding off on making it official, though Bush bought himself time to start building his national network, and raise boatloads of money for his various Super PACs and leadership committees, pushing what few limits remain in America's gutted campaign finance laws.
The delay also gave Bush an opportunity to start selling himself as the GOP's answer to Hillary Clinton— a frontrunner whose inevitable nomination would be grudgingly accepted, if not embraced, by her party's grassroots base. And for the first few months of 2015, it looked like this pitch was working. Mitt Romney chickened out of running a third campaign, Chris Christie's White House dreams deflated, and Bush was left as the Establishment Candidate, rising to the top of the crowded GOP field in most national polls.
In the weeks leading up to his Miami announcement, though, things started to slide downhill. First, there were the four days that Bush spent trying to decide how he felt about his brother's invasion of Iraq—a bizarre series of cable news stuttering that suggested the younger Bush actually never considered that someone might ask how he felt about his brother's infamous decision to send America into a disastrous, decades-long war. Then, last week, reporters unearthed his 1995 book Profiles in Character, in which Bush argued, among other things, that America needed to restore a sense of "public shame" by ridiculing unwed mothers and divorcees. In the meantime, a Washington Post headline declared that Bush's "Campaign Ran off Course Before It Even Began."
With Monday's announcement, Bush3 was clearly looking to recover from all this and reestablish his status as the GOP's natural frontrunner for 2016. The Miami rally was an enormous, folksy production, located in a Cuban-American enclave at a school that claims to have the largest Hispanic student body in the US. The message—which the campaign not-so-subtly emphasized in a flood of schmaltzy social media blasts—was that Bush is the saner, sweeter, squishier choice who can pull the Republican Party back from the lunatic fringe.
"As a candidate, I intend to let everyone hear my message, including the many who can express their love of country in a different language," Bush told his audience before launching into a few minutes of Spanish. "I will campaign as I would serve, going 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," he concluded. "I will run to win."
A video released on the eve of Bush's speech underscored this message, featuring testimonials from a diverse cross-section of Floridians—a Hispanic immigrant, a victim of domestic violence, an African American woman who was the first in her family to attend college—expressing gratitude for their former governor. As the Washington Post's Paul Waldman noted, if not for the word "conservative," it would be hard to tell that the video is about a Republican.
But Bush's attempt to recover from his recent stumbles also highlights his underlying weakness as a frontrunner, and the uncomfortable questions that will undoubtedly follow him into his official 2016 campaign. For starters, while Bush is earnestly (though perhaps not explicitly) rebranding himself as a moderate centrist, riffing on his brother's "Compassionate Conservative" mantra, his record as governor of Florida—which he talked up for most of Monday's speech—tells a different story.
Bush was a staunch and vocal conservative, unafraid of voicing his often harsh views on criminal justice, the social safety net, and the decline of family values in America. This is, after all, the same guy who turned Terri Schiavo into a cause célèbre for the Religious Right, signed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law, expanded Florida's prison system, and opposed programs that emphasized treatment over punishment for nonviolent drug offenders.
The bigger issue, of course, is Bush's name and all the political baggage that it brings. In his speech, Bush attempted to dispel the idea of himself as some kind of heir, declaring that no candidate "deserves the job by right of résumé, party, seniority, family, or family narrative." But even the no-last-name logo (Jeb!) that his campaign rolled out for the kickoff rally probably won't be enough to make Americans forget that this guy wants to be the third Bush to run for president and win.
"The presidency should not be passed on from one liberal to the next," he proclaimed in Miami. The implication, of course, is that passing it from one Bush to the next would be much better.
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