Jeb Bush: Is he 2016's Mitt Romney?

In 2012, Mitt Romney was the out-of-touch establishment Republican who sparked a right-wing primary backlash. A New Hampshire GOP event this weekend suggests the storyline could play out again with Jeb Bush.

Elise Amendola/AP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush jokes with a member of the audience at a 'Politics and Eggs' event, a breakfast fixture for 2016 presidential prospects Friday at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

In New Hampshire this weekend, there was already the scent of it. Perhaps not overpowering yet, but unmistakable and very familiar. 

"I'm sick and tired of mushy, wishy-washy conservatives," one attendee of a Republican gathering for potential presidential candidates in New Hampshire told The Boston Herald.

For good measure, she also made Saturday's headlines by suggesting that the still-awfully-far-away Republican presidential primary season would be a "coronation" because "it seems a little bit like the establishment is backing you as a candidate," according to The Hill newspaper.

The "you" here is not terribly hard to determine. No surprise, it's Jeb Bush. But rewind the electoral clock about four years, and the same comments were being mumbled about Mitt Romney.

Mr. Bush III is not yet in the presidential race, though he is apparently raising enough money to singlehandedly send Richard Branson to Jupiter, so there's not much mystery about his intentions. Unfortunately for him, there is also not much mystery about the fact that once he enters, he will inherit the Romneyian title of "Republican presidential front-runner for whom no Republican really wants to vote."

That's not really true, of course. Plenty of Republicans would vote for Bush – or, at this indecently early stage, would at least consider it.

But those are not the sorts of Republicans who come out to events like the ones this weekend. Nor are they the sorts of Republicans most likely to show up for primaries, as Mr. Romney discovered four years ago.

So, early though it is, the signs are becoming harder to ignore. It appears that the one thing the Republican establishment feared above all else could be happening again: the repeat of Mitt Romney.

By that, we don't mean the actual return of Mitt Romney. Nor do we mean to suggest that the Republican Party did not like Mitt Romney himself.

What we mean is that the Republican Party absolutely does not want a return of what happened in 2012, when Romney had to run a gamut of the right wing's "not ready for primetime players" before Republicans eventually surrendered the nomination to him with a shrug and a thud at the ballot box.

Bush's hundreds of millions are as good an indicator as any right now of where the establishment's money is (literally). The comments from New Hampshire rabble-rousers this weekend, however, are probably also a decent indicator of the sorts of voices that will be driving the Republican conversation until the convention in July 2016.

That's 15 months from today.

The fact is, the Republican establishment – and Jeb Bush – are struggling against several trends that were complicating factors in 2012 but could be even more potent next year.

The Chipotle effect. This past week, we caught fascinating glimpses of how the populist left has forced Hillary Rodham Clinton to attempt to reinvent herself. Once she was imperious and adored for it. Her sunglasses and Blackberry meme oozed cool intellectual indifference. Now, she's chowing Chipotle burrito bowls and doing everything short of taking to the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to kiss liberal heartthrob Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Well, Republican presidential nominees have been dealing with this on the right since  2010. It's called the tea party.

But even beyond the tea party, populism is spreading across the political spectrum. It's most notable form seems to be chatter about income inequality.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky told CBS's "60 Minutes" that the richest "1 percent" of Americans "have done quite well," while middle- and lower-income Americans are "worse off." House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio also said that income equality was worse. Nevermind that they were trying to blame President Obama. The subject itself comes straight from Senator Warren's talking points and has relegated their 2012 talk of protecting "job creators" to the dustbin.

On a policy level, that might play to some of Bush's strengths. He's seen as more moderate – even liberal – on social and economic matters. But on a visceral level, anyone who has a family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and two presidents in the family might have a hard time casting himself as a crusader for the common man.

The money effect. Yes, Bush appears to be trying to loop the field financially before he officially declares his candidacy. But there's a reason for that. In the wide-open fundraising world of today, almost everyone has someone who wants to give them gobs of money.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas (indirectly) got $31 million. The money was tabbed for four super political action committees aligned with him. And that's just a taste. 

The fundraising fire hose is flowing like never before, and it means more candidates will have more money to run more ads for more months than ever before. In other words, the party has less and less control over the field, as Mark Trumbull reported for the Monitor. Which means it has less and less ability to clear the field for an establishment favorite. Which means that New Hampshire Republican will likely get her way.

There will be no "coronation."

The Rubio effect. In 2012, Romney's list of opponents had some past pedigree but little buzz entering the primary season. The rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum seemed, at least on some level, a rebuke to Romney more than a positive vote of real conviction.

Next year, however, the Republican field should be packed with intriguing candidates, from Senator Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who each bring a narrow but intensely passionate following, to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has become a conservative folk hero for his battle against unions.

Charismatic New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has yet to announce, and political analysts say Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida could be the best and most compelling campaigner of the lot.

In 2012, Romney seemed to win the nomination by default. In 2016, Bush almost certainly will not have that luxury.  

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