Jeb Bush says he wants 'conversations with citizens.' Does he mean it?

In sort-of announcing for the 2016 presidential race this week, Jeb Bush said he wanted to have 'conversations with citizens' before deciding whether to formally run. It's a tried-and-true rhetorical fig leaf.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens before speaking at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington in November.

Potential political candidates want to make it appear as if they’re being recruited to run, rather than doing so out of their own ambition. That has given rise to expressions seeking to stress that they’re seeking voters’ input before they enter the fray, including the “conversations with citizens” that Jeb Bush used this week.

The former Florida governor – brother and son to ex-presidents – announced on Facebook and Twitter that he’s decided “to actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States.” He wrote that he intends “to establish a Leadership PAC that will help me facilitate conversations with citizens across America to discuss the most critical challenges facing our exceptional nation. The PAC’s purpose will be to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.”

Presidential candidates don’t usually establish these fundraising vehicles just for the chance to converse with the electorate. Mr. Bush likely has already made up his mind he’s running. But the “conversation” aspect of his note provides a veneer of doubt about his intentions – which, of course, only has fueled further speculation among political insiders.

He’s not the first possible White House aspirant to talk like this. Back in 1999, Republican Elizabeth Dole traveled to Iowa to announce her presidential exploratory committee, but declined to provide many of her specific policy stands. “I want to hear from people – I want to listen,” she explained. Ms. Dole – whose husband, Bob, unsuccessfully ran in 1996 – eventually pulled out of the race before the primaries.

Such expressions are a linguistic cousin of the oft-employed “listening tour” among all-but-certain presidential candidates. Most recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken that route as she considers jumping into the 2016 scrum.

The New York Times reported that just after Democrats’ 2014 midterm election drubbing, “In the coming weeks, Hillary Rodham Clinton will stop delivering paid speeches. She will embark on an unofficial listening tour to gather ideas from the business community, union leaders and others. And she will seek advice from such far-flung advisers as an ad man in Austin, Tex., behind the iconic ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ campaign and a leading strategist at a Boston-based public affairs consulting firm with ties to the Kennedys.”

In these situations, the term “explore” is never far away. It refers to the early stages of a campaign in which a candidate who has already decided to run doesn’t yet go all the way. It’s usually a rhetorical fig leaf to allow for better fundraising.

An exploratory committee technically creates a legal shell for a candidate who expects to spend more than $5,000 while contemplating an actual run. Under campaign finance rules, exploratory money may be raised without the full disclosure of sources required of true candidates. Those donors must only be revealed when the candidate drops the exploratory phase and jumps fully into the race.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.

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