Jeb Bush is starting the new year with a smile. Former Arkansas governor and, until last weekend, Fox News host Mike Huckabee announced he would “explore” running for president.
By the way, these “exploration” announcements are yet another example of the government encouraging politicians to lie. Exploratory committees disguise the fact that a candidate is running about as well as glasses conceal Superman’s real identity. They require a willful suspension of disbelief on the part of everyone watching. Politicians like this loophole because it drags out the time in which they are allowed to conceal their donors and provides another round of headlines when they “formally” (and inevitably) announce their candidacies.
This is all to say Huckabee isn’t “exploring” the question of whether he’s running any more than Bush is. Bush wouldn’t resign from all those corporate boards and Huckabee wouldn’t walk off the Fox stage — or any stage — unless they’d already decided.
Huckabee’s announcement is good news for Bush for an obvious reason: The more crowded the right side of the Republican field, the clearer it will be on the left.
No, Bush isn’t a left-winger. He was a very conservative — and very successful — governor of Florida. But within the microcosm of the GOP primary electorate, he’s on the left, for want of a better term.
One such better term would be one we hear a lot these days: the establishment. On the right there’s a lot of debate about what it means to be “establishment” — but whatever the definition, Bush’s picture goes next to it in the dictionary.
Bush’s personality was always less populist than that of his brother George. Substantively, W’s compassionate conservatism had a lot more in common with their father’s political philosophy. Bush 41 announced in his inaugural that we have “more will than wallet.” Bush 43 noticed that we still had a lot of credit cards in that otherwise empty wallet. But stylistically, George W. Bush didn’t run as a “Bushy” but as a born-again Christian Texan.
Jeb Bush seems uninterested in, or incapable of, drawing on conservative identity politics. If anything he shows a thinly veiled disdain for anything that smacks of pandering to the base. He says a candidate must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.” That’s a bit like saying, “You have to be willing to lose the playoffs to win the Super Bowl.”
Huckabee couldn’t be more different. He is a pandering prodigy, no doubt in part because it stems from sincere conviction. He got his start as a Baptist minister, staffer for a televangelist and as a hokey TV performer, and he is fluent and comfortable spinning down-home charm.
Much as Ronald Reagan did, Huckabee annoys many of his critics because he refuses to live up to liberal stereotypes. He’s neither bitter nor cranky, and he’s often wittier than the very detractors who think big-city liberals have a monopoly on political wit.
“I’m a conservative,” he famously said, “but I’m not mad at everybody over it.”
While Bush talks a lot about the need to run for president “joyfully,” he shows precious little joy. Huckabee, meanwhile, is always having fun, even when he says, as he once did, that we need to “take back this nation for Christ.”
Huckabee’s greatest advantage is also his biggest disadvantage. His support is deep but narrow. In 2008, he won large swaths of evangelicals but struggled to woo anyone else.
And that’s why Bush must be smiling. Just as Bush is soaking up big money, Huckabee may soak up evangelical voters. He may not get all of them; Christian conservatives are homogenous only in the imaginations of those who fear them. And his campaign could self-destruct or fizzle.
But for now, he poses the biggest threat to Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Ben Carson and others who desperately need grass-roots social conservatives. Cruz seems to be betting that he can be a unifying standard-bearer on the right. The more successful Huckabee is, the less possible that becomes.
Huckabee still has little chance of becoming president, but he has a good chance of deciding who the GOP nominee will be. If he decides to attack his competitors on the right, he could serve as a blocking tackle for Bush (and keep alive the prospects of a Vice President Huckabee).
If he takes dead aim at the establishmentarians, he’ll likely knock that smile off Bush’s face.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a columnist for Tribune Media.