Jeb Bush has been a putative candidate for the White House for only a few weeks and already he is discovering that presidential politics requires an elegant equipoise.
His father and brother discovered this before him, and for both of them the exercise required a sophisticated type of flexibility. This sort of flexibility requires a candidate to be a kind of Nik Wallenda — to walk across the tightrope of Republican politics without falling into the cataract of issues below, or to let flexibility look like what it sometimes is: a lack of conviction.
More than anytime in a half-century, this requires great skill. Mr. Bush tiptoed into the 2016 campaign as a Republican moderate, his natural opponents for establishment GOP votes being Mitt Romney and, after the former Massachusetts governor stood down, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. The theory was that Mr. Bush must first defeat Mr. Christie and emerge as the undisputed champion of establishment ideas and voters.
But this is not his father’s Republican Party, nor even his brother’s.
Both of the earlier Bushes profited mightily from their ties with the Republican establishment, though both understood that there were new perils in being identified with the Eastern elite that ran the GOP from Wall Street and New York law firms and for decades simply pulled the Rotarians and small-town hospital board chairmen and local chamber of commerce presidents along with them.
The accepted short explanation of the Republican Revolution of the late 20th century is that it was powered by the personality and instincts of Ronald Reagan, and his triumph over the elder Mr. Bush in the 1980 nomination fight is often cited as a powerful symbol of that. But it is only part of the story, akin to thinking that the Russian Revolution ended in February 1917.
A vital and much-ignored element of the Republican Revolution was the advent of the muscular House Republicans in 1995. Think of that as the October 1917 coda to the first phase of the Russian Revolution, though the comparison would repel both Vladimir Lenin and Newt Gingrich. Well, at least Lenin.
But the power center of the Gingrich Republicans — and thus the developing new identity of the Republican Party — was not the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobby group representing small-business leaders and others fed up with federal regulation and big government.
All that preceded the Tea Party, whose interests may be slightly different but whose issues are similar and whose passions grow stronger as the Obama years wear on and as the 2016 primaries approach. Together they represent an important insurgency within the Republican Party.
And that insurgency is angry. One measure: The columnist Ann Coulter’s impatience with GOP leadership on Capitol Hill. “If a Republican majority in both houses of Congress can’t stop Obama from issuing illegal immigrants Social Security cards and years of back welfare payments,” she wrote last week, “there is no reason to vote Republican ever again.”
The import of the Coulter comments: Increasing numbers of conservatives are frustrated with what they consider the Republican Party’s cooperative brand of conservatism. They want candidates to speak a language of high-proof conservatism. They’re tired of 3.2 beer and are thirsty for the strong stuff.
All of which explains why Mr. Bush has been saying, repeatedly, that while he loves his father and brother, he is his own man — and a conservative. “My views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences,” he said in remarks last week before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This will not be the last time that sentence tumbles off his lips.
But it is clear that Mr. Bush has a bigger challenge than simply asserting his independence, insisting on his conservative credentials and dispatching Mr. Christie. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have a liberal wing of the Democratic Party to appease, but her gender and lack of credible opposition make her challenge a lot easier. The Republican ballots in early primaries will have hard-core conservatives among the choices, and the phrase “act of love” — one of Mr. Bush’s remarks in a 2014 interview — will not appear in any of their talking points on immigration.
Mr. Bush and his allies believe his years as governor of Florida prove his conservative bona fides. They cite his tax cuts, budget reductions and initiatives to undermine the power of the state’s teachers unions. Then there are his actions to keep alive Terri Schiavo in the face of her husband’s efforts to remove life support as she became the center of a medical, ethical and political struggle for more than a dozen years.
Still, Mr. Bush’s support of the controversial Common Core curriculum and his views on immigration are enough for conservatives to consider him a dangerous apostate. Those may be the very policy positions that give him appeal to moderates and to some Democrats, but in a way that proves the conservatives’ point.
So what is Mr. Bush to do?
That is almost certainly the yeastiest debate within the Bush circle today. It reflects the conundrum characteristic of American presidential politics — that candidates cannot win the nomination without bowing to the extremes in their party but cannot win the presidency without moving to the center in the general election.
Conservatives are challenging that nostrum this year. Their favorites are Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and the former surgeon Ben Carson. Many of them believe Mr. Bush represents a mortal threat to the Tea Party. Some of them threaten to abandon the GOP if it selects a nominee acceptable to the big donors and the Republican establishment.
So let’s have a look at the acceptability poll conducted by conservative Glenn Beck this month. Second to last among possible GOP presidential candidates, sitting there in 27th place, was Mr. Bush, with a letter grade of D-minus. The only person scoring lower was Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, at No. 28. Mr. Cruz finished first.
This is the state of the new Republican Party, once considered a peaceable political kingdom. It is peaceable no longer. But it’s interesting as hell — and dangerous as hell for Mr. Bush.