Is Jeb Bush the Republicans' Hillary Clinton?

The former Florida governor has suggested he might consider a 2016 presidential run. While he'd be formidable, he probably wouldn't clear the Republican field, the way Clinton might for Democrats.

Eric Gay/AP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talks about education as he addresses the Texas Business Leadership Council last month in Austin, Texas.

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) leaving the door open to a 2016 presidential run, the odds appear to be rising that we could be treated – or subjected, depending on your point of view – to something politicos have been speculating about for years: an epic battle between two of the nation's most dominant political families. In other words, with apologies to the Rambo franchise, we may actually get to see "Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton: First Blood, Part 2." 

Watching Mr. Bush make the media rounds while promoting his new book on immigration this week, we've been struck all over again by his political skills – a relaxed, unaffected manner on camera, great ease in discussing policy, and the quiet confidence of a man who knows he's already regarded as a leader within his party. 

But while a Bush-Clinton matchup in 2016 would be the ultimate battle of heavyweights, Jeb isn't exactly the Republican version of Hillary. For one thing, he's been out of politics since 2006 and has kept a comparatively low profile over the years. His approval ratings are nowhere near the levels she's been posting in recent polls. And he probably wouldn't clear the Republican field the way Hillary would.

Here are some of the factors making his path to the nomination a bit more challenging than hers:

The Bush name

Certainly, being a member of one of America's most famous political families comes with a whole host of advantages – an instant political and fundraising network, universal name recognition, and no stature gap to contend with. On the other hand, the Bush brand comes with a ton of baggage, and Republicans know it.

Former President George W. Bush left office with an approval rating in the low 20s, amid two unpopular wars and a tanking economy (unlike former President Bill Clinton, who left office with the highest approval rating of any modern president). There's a reason President Bush's name was barely mentioned at last summer's GOP convention (unlike President Clinton, who was one of the Democrats' marquee speakers).

While most former presidents, no matter how controversial, tend to be embraced eventually with affection and nostalgia – something that's clearly happened to Mr. Clinton, with the Monica Lewinsky scandal now a distant memory – the Bush years just aren't far enough out yet.

Both Hillary and Jeb would have to contend with "dynasty" charges, but it's likely to be a bigger problem for Jeb, who would be the third, rather than the second, president from his immediate family. Moreover, Hillary would still be able to portray her candidacy as groundbreaking and novel (as she did in 2008), since she'd be vying to become America's first female president. Jeb wouldn't be able to make any such claim.

Republicans are more divided than Democrats

If anyone can unite the Republican Party right now, it may be Jeb. But that's a big "if." Despite recently tweaking his position on immigration reform, he's not a "tea party" politician and may still have to fight to get the support of his party's conservative base. He has taken positions in the past that aren't always in line with those on the right (such as refusing to sign Grover Norquist's "pledge" not to raise taxes), and over the course of the past year has castigated his party repeatedly for alienating minorities and other groups of voters.

Working in Bush's favor is the fact that Republicans seem to realize that the long, drawn-out primary process in 2012 hurt their previous nominee, Mitt Romney, by forcing him to endure too many debates, spend too much money, and adopt too many far-right positions that then hurt him in the general election. But whether they'll change the calendar for 2016 is unclear.

He's facing much stiffer intraparty competition

The biggest problem for Democrats right now, frankly, is what they'll do if Hillary doesn't run. Vice President Joe Biden will be 74 years old in 2016, and the other Democratic names currently being bandied about – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley – aren't remotely in the same league.

By contrast, Republicans have a very strong bench of candidates even without Jeb. Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush's Florida protégé, is a rising star in the party, and is already acting like a candidate (making visits to Iowa, wooing donors on Wall Street). And while many suggest that if Jeb decides to take the plunge, Mr. Rubio will wait – well, we're not entirely convinced of that.

Nor is Rubio the only Republican who seems poised to make a serious 2016 bid. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may not be beloved by conservatives, but he's one of the most popular governors in the country and has enough star power to seize the spotlight. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is still a hero to many on the right for his willingness to tackle entitlement reform. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, while more of a dark horse, has the political instincts and media savvy to complicate things for everyone else.

None of this is to say that Bush wouldn't be a favorite to win his party's nomination should he decide to take the plunge. He'd probably become the GOP front-runner upon entering the field – and, who knows, Republicans' bitterness over the 2012 election may lead them to close ranks more quickly than they otherwise might.

Still, we don't think it would be a coronation for Bush, the way it would be for Ms. Clinton. He'd have to fight for it.  

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