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The Worst General Election Ever

Unlike Daniel Larison, I think Jeb Bush will be a very formidable candidate whose entry will seriously change the shape of the race. We have every reason to believe that the most-likely choice the voters will be presented with in 2016 will be Bush versus Clinton.

Why do I believe this? Here are a few reasons.

First, Jeb Bush would not be running if he were not highly confident of his ability to circle the wagons of the GOP donor class. And that class has been making it very clear that they want to circle the wagons. They do not want an open contest for the “establishment” candidate. They want a clear favorite, and they want it early.

This should not be a surprise. Pretty much right after George W. Bush won reelection to the Texas governorship, the GOP donor class closed ranks around him as the presumptive nominee for 2000, and they moved heaven and earth to drag him across that finish line despite his many manifest weaknesses. They view Hillary Clinton as at least as formidable as Al Gore; they believe that the way to oppose strength is with strength; and they have every reason lack confidence that the rank and file, with their past enthusiasms for ludicrous candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, can be trusted to select the nominee most likely to actually win.

The fact that Jeb is in the race proves that enough movers and shakers in the GOP are not worried about the Bush name, that either they view it as a net asset rather than a net liability or they view Jeb’s other assets as substantial enough to offset the negatives associated with the name. I can tell you anecdotally that, speaking with former Wall Street colleagues who regularly vote Republican, I’ve heard very little concern about the Bush family name being a serious problem – and plenty of satisfaction with Jeb personally.

What this means is that the remainder of the establishment-acceptable field has to hope for one of two things to happen to get serious traction. Either Jeb Bush needs to stumble very badly, revealing himself to be a much weaker candidate than originally appeared – or, alternatively, one particular member of the field needs to show signs of serious rock-star status, rising definitively and quickly above the rest of the pack, in a way that promises real potential in the primary and in the general election.

I don’t see either of those things happening. Jeb Bush hasn’t run for office recently. But he’s not a political novice. He’s both lost and won difficult contests in a complex state. He’s got a substantial political operation and has been preparing for a jump to the national stage for some time. I will be shocked if he melts down like Rick Perry or deludes himself about what it takes to win like Rudolph Giuliani.

As for the competition: Rand Paul may well do better than his father – may even win a state like New Hampshire. But he is still not trusted by the establishment, and if it comes down to a Paul-Bush matchup, I’d bet heavily on Bush. In Bush’s absence, candidates like Christie and Rubio would have the room to jockey for the support of the various Republican factions. But with Bush in the race, they have to prove not only that they are plausible winners, but that they are better than Bush. A candidate like Rick Perry, Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney has an even higher wall to scale to get a serious look. The donor class thinks Bush would be fine – I would bet they like him better not only than any GOP nominee since his brother, but than any losing GOP primary candidate. Why take a risk on someone with more obvious flaws?

The one oft-mentioned candidate who I think could have presented a serious challenge is Scott Walker. He’s won three times in a purple state and he hasn’t done it by running as a moderate. He presents as both a conviction politician and a winner. In a GOP primary he’s got very little baggage and a whole lot of credibility. And he hasn’t had to declare himself much on a host of issues that potentially divide the party. I personally think that, domestically, he’d lead the country in the wrong direction – not to a renewed broad-based prosperity but to a greater secession by the economic winners from the country as a whole. But I recognize that he’s got something potent to sell to the GOP primary electorate, and potentially to the country at large.

But I don’t know that he’ll have the time to build the national infrastructure of support necessary to make a frontal challenge to Bush. And in terms of geography and base credibility, he’s almost a perfect running mate for Bush – which, if he isn’t sure he can win, is a very good argument for not pissing off the Bush campaign by going for the jugular in the primaries. Assuming he runs at all.

So sharpen your straight razors, people. The 2016 primaries on the Democratic side will feature Hillary Clinton ignoring a handful of protest candidates who never get any traction. And on the Republican side they will feature Jeb Bush coopting his most formidable opponents on his way to defeating a Rand Paul insurgency that more closely resembles Eugene McCarthy in ’68 than Ronald Reagan in ’76. And the general election will be the most-depressing of our lifetimes.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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