The presidential nomination race is frozen. The big money and the gritty organizers won’t make 2016 election commitments until the putative frontrunner makes a move, in or out of the campaign. The deep freeze frustrates politicos, though the vast majority of Americans are happy not to talk about a fight for the White House just now.
It’s customary to apply that analysis to the Democratic contest, where former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham is considered the pace-setter of the race if not the overwhelming favorite. But that critique applies as well to the Republicans, where a bunch of rookie politicians are angling for advantage but where the real contest won’t take form until former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida decides whether to mount a campaign.
The result is an unusual and perhaps unique overture to a modern presidential election, with both major parties awaiting the decision of a major candidate.
There are only two possible analogues, and neither is quite as dramatic as the 2016 case.
One is 1952, when the parties awaited the decisions of President Harry Truman and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, though Truman lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and suffered from plunging poll results. The other is 1928, when Calvin Coolidge’s decision not to run for re-election threw the contest for the White House into paralysis until Gov. Al Smith of New York and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover formally decided to run.
This time the slow emergence of Mr. Bush, the son and brother of presidents, is the major factor shaping the GOP race.
As possible candidates such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky seek to establish their legitimacy, and while Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey struggles to recover from the scandal on the George Washington bridge, Mr. Bush is positioned as something of a white knight: a mainstream profile for a party struggling for identity, an experienced campaigner amid near-amateurs, a Catholic fluent in Spanish for a party increasingly reliant on the white Catholic vote (Mitt Romney won 59 percent in 2012) but dangerously unappealing for Latino voters (Mr. Romney took only 27 percent).
Here are the elements Mr. Bush and the Republican Party have to weigh for 2016:
• The dynasty factor. There was a Bush or a Clinton on a national party ticket for the seven consecutive presidential elections between 1980 and 2004. If either Mr. Bush or Mrs. Clinton wins a nomination in 2016, that would mean that one or both families would have been on a major-party ticket in 80 percent of the American presidential elections since M*A*S*H was one of the nation’s leading television shows and Pink Floyd was one of the leading music groups.
“If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office,” Jeb Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, said in January, “that’s silly.”
There is another way to look at modern American dynastic politics. There was a Bush or a Dole on eight consecutive Republican national tickets between 1976 and 2004. This is a situation more akin to the politics of the Philippines and Indonesia than to the American political tradition.
• The kinder, gentler factor. That phrase was popularized by Mr. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, but clearly Mr. Bush feels that impulse in his desire for a change in the tone of American politics. In his remarks last week at an event honoring the senior President Bush at Texas A&M University, Mr. Bush spoke of a “hopeful, optimistic message.”
That sentiment differs little from what his brother, then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, expressed in his 2000 race and from what Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois voiced in his 2008 race.
But Mr. Bush made an unusually strong appeal to his own party to abandon heated rhetoric and divisiveness. He has viewed this shrillness firsthand — as his father was ridiculed for being obtuse and unfeeling in the 1992 campaign and as his brother was pilloried in the last years of his administration and attacked in 2008 even though he was not on the ballot.
“Campaigns ought to be about listening and learning and getting better,” Mr. Bush said. “I do think we’ve lost our way.” He made it clear that he was unwilling to engage in what he characterized as the “mud fight” aspect of American politics.
If Mr. Bush senses that the 2016 race will be more mud than meaning, he will likely step away from the race.
• GOP issues. Mr. Bush is in some ways a throwback — a comforting thought if you deplore the tone and timbre of the current Republican Party, a threat if you think the party’s pattern of nominating mainstream candidates like Robert J. Dole and Mitt Romney only ensures that Democrats prevail.
He is a supporter of two issues that have drawn deep skepticism from some conservatives: the Common Core curriculum initiative and an overhaul of immigration law. Indeed, he echoed his brother’s notion of compassionate conservatism (and attract-ed strong opposition from the GOP right) when, in the onstage interview for Fox News at the Texas A&M forum, he deplored harsh treatment of those in the United States illegally. “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony;” he said, “it’s an act of love and an act of commitment to your family.”
• Can he win? That question comes in two dimensions. He will not have an easy time in the Republican primaries, but the size of the field may work to his advantage; the others, representatives of the strain of muscular conservatism that has become so prominent in the modern GOP, plus some representatives of the religious right such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, may split the vote and allow someone to win Iowa with as little as 26 percent.
If he runs in the general election against Mrs. Clinton, he will portray her as a standard-bearer for a third Clinton term — or, even less appealing, for a third Obama term. If Mrs. Clinton or some other Democrat runs against him, he or she will portray Mr. Bush as a standard-bearer for a third term of his brother. The voters don’t want either of those things. Just as important, the two legacy candidates don’t either.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).