By Ross Douthat
New York Times
If you're keeping score during the endless 2016 preseason, this was a pretty good week for Jeb Bush.
First, he watched Scott Walker, currently his main competitor for the Republican front-runner slot, stumble through another not-ready-for-prime-time moment, first hiring a well-liked young consultant named Liz Mair and then sacking her one day later because it turned out that she had tweeted intemperately about the sacred state of Iowa.
Second, he survived Andrew Ferguson.
Ferguson is a brilliant essayist and reporter for the Weekly Standard, and lately he has been an angel of death for Republican presidential hopefuls. During the last presidential preseason, he profiled Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and both governors lived to regret it. Barbour let slip what sounded like praise for the civil rights-era White Citizens' Council in his native Yazoo City; Daniels told Ferguson that the country needed a "truce" on social issues. Not coincidentally, neither man ended up even mounting a presidential bid.
In 2013, a Ferguson profile of Ted Cruz included a devastating section in which the journalist, trapped in cars and green rooms with his subject, realizes that Cruz only speaks in stump speeches, and won't ... stop ... giving ... them.
Then, just last month, Ferguson decided that three 2016 hopefuls didn't even deserve full profiles and filleted the ambitions of Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee in a single ruthless piece.
But his Jeb profile, on the cover of the latest Standard, may actually do its subject political good.
Oh, there are digs at the Bush family courtiers pining for a chance to work for "45." But the candidate himself comes off very favorably. More important, he comes off the way he needs Republican primary voters to eventually see him — as a politician who's much more authentically conservative than his centrist image and who has both the record and the scars to prove it.
Were I in charge of conservative outreach for the Bush campaign, I would be blast-emailing the profile to doubtful right-wing activists, with "Jeb: He's on Your Side" in the subject line (or "Jeb: The Anti-Romney").
But I wouldn't fool myself with the notion that Jeb's biggest problem in the primary season is his policy positions. His stances on immigration and Common Core will hurt him with conservatives, and his record in Florida will help him, but his biggest problem right now is identification, not ideology. There just aren't that many Republican voters who want to vote for a dynastic heir in 2016, and it isn't clear yet if they'll decide that they ought to vote for Bush in spite of that reluctance.
Voting for president is a political act, but it's also a relational one. As the presidency increasingly dominates our politics, people want a nominee who will somehow personally represent all the virtues that they associate with their country, their political coalition and their worldview. They want an archetype, an inspiration, a figure who can somehow personify liberalism, or conservatism, or America itself.
Among Republican voters, everything that's appealing about a figure like Ben Carson — or, in a different way, Sarah Palin before him — is explained by this desire.
But at the same time, voters are more responsible than polling swings sometimes suggest. They know (or enough of them know) that in the end they ought to support someone who actually has a chance of being elected president and effectively governing the country. And when the tension between "want" and "ought" can't be resolved as neatly as it was by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the vintage Barack Obama in 2008, the side of "ought" almost always wins.
That's why there hasn't been a real no-hope nominee in either party since George McGovern in 1972. That's why Mitt Romney, unloved and unwanted, was still the Republican pick in 2012. And that's why if Jeb could just run against, say, Carson, Huckabee and Cruz, it wouldn't matter that voters don't want to be represented by another scion of the Bush dynasty. In the end, they wouldn't really have a choice.
But right now, in Walker and Marco Rubio, Bush faces two opponents whose backgrounds and identities — the working-class slayer of unions, the self-made immigrant's son — match the way Republican voters want to think about their party in a way that a silver-spoon politician, whatever his record, never will. And notwithstanding Walker's recent stumbles, neither he nor Rubio obviously fails the "ought" test, since it's possible to imagine either man doing better than Bush against Hillary Clinton in a general election.
That doesn't mean either can overcome Jeb's institutional advantages. But he needs them to flounder a bit and to look unready; failing that, he needs to find a way to show them up.
Because otherwise, Rubio or Walker might start to convince Republican voters that this time, how they want to vote is also how they should.