Political Hay

Only Qualified to Be President?

It's not too late for Jeb Bush to reconsider.

By 1.23.09

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Is Jeb Bush now only qualified to be president? Sadly, his recent refusal to seek Florida's open Senate seat race in 2010 indicates, the answer is "yes." Jeb's decision not to run is beyond disappointing to national and Senate Republicans in dire need of reinforcement. It is also an example of "president-itis," which afflicts prominent Republicans from time to time. Despite advantages to themselves and their party, too often Republicans who see themselves as "presidential" can not see themselves in any other light.

Jeb's decision to not run for Senate is deflating because he is so accomplished. In 1998, he won his first of two terms as Florida's governor with 55% of the vote. When he sought reelection in 2002, no Republican governor had ever won reelection in Florida. He was not only running against precedent, but president too. With his brother in the White House, he was targeted nationally by Democrats still smarting from George W's tight 2000 victory -- a victory decided in…Florida, of course. With the stars seemingly aligned against him, he increased his former victory margin -- winning with 56% of the vote.

Policy-wise, Jeb earned education and environmental credentials while in office. Politically, he attracted strong support from voting blocs Republicans badly need for their future success. In 2002, he won 80% of Cuban voters, 56% of non-Cuban Hispanics, and 44% of Jewish voters.

Unquestionably he would have been a great candidate and likely a great Senator. And a great addition to Republicans' sagging Senate fortunes. At their lowest ebb in 30 years, Republicans have not had as few as 41 Senate seats since 1979-80, Carter's presidency. Such levels assuredly present challenges, but opportunities as well. When there's a need for young, energetic, and talented newcomers, fresh faces and new ideas receive a more eager reception and rapid advancement than they would in a majority.

And electoral opportunities abound to produce them. Republicans already have four open seats -- Florida, Ohio, Kansas, and Missouri -- to defend in 2010. On the other side, Democrats have four seats -- New York, Delaware, Colorado, and Illinois -- in the next two years where their candidates will defend seats to which they were not elected. Jeb Bush's acceptance of such an opportunity now would quickly vault him to the head of a new class and energize its recruitment.

But as too often in the past, "president-itis" seems to have struck. Too many good Republican presidential aspirants have passed on similar opportunities to not take note of it. For example in 1996 and 2000, Steve Forbes ran for President, yet despite later Senate seat possibilities in New Jersey -- a state in which Republicans desperately need help -- he never took the plunge. Even further back, Dan Quayle left the vice presidency in 1992 and then subsequently sought the presidency. Sure, he already had been a Senator before becoming VP in 1988, but a return to the Senate -- where he had performed well and won reelection in 1986 by the largest statewide margin in Indiana's history -- would have allowed him to refurbish his undeservedly tarnished reputation from the Bush I administration.

Certainly some former Republican presidential candidates have used their presidential political capital in the Senate. Lamar Alexander, after being a successful two-term governor of Tennessee, twice sought the Republican presidential nomination. In 2002, he ran and won Tennessee's Senate seat left open by Fred Thompson's retirement. Now just seven years later, he holds the third highest Republican leadership position there.

Of course, the highest profile case of taking presidential aspirations into the Senate comes from the other party. Hillary Clinton left the White House, ran, and won an open Senate seat in New York. She paid her dues but never relinquished her goals. Despite her appreciable star power, it was not beneath her to serve in the Senate -- to the benefit of both herself and her party.

The Senate is hardly a bad place for presidential aspirations. The 2008 tickets prove this: Obama, Biden, and McCain all came from it. American politics is uniquely local. Unlike many other nations, America does not have truly national parties, but a conglomeration of state ones. This federal nature demands local power bases and in turn requires a candidate to first address local issues to be successful. The Senate gives that opportunity plus that of dealing with national and international issues as well. The Senate is only a step down relative to heightened expectations.

Shakespeare wrote:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…

The key is to be on the stage and, for Republicans, to have their best cast on it. Yet it sometimes seems they are becoming a party of leading actors only. To that point, it has been said that there are no small roles, only small actors. Jeb Bush is no small actor. He should reconsider the role that Florida offers in 2010.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.