This morning, Jeb Bush said some somewhat surprising things in a meeting with reporters, at least for a Republican. He noted that neither Ronald Reagan nor his father could be elected in today's GOP, and said in essence that Mitt Romney had moved too far to the right on immigration. He also said some of the things you'd expect a Republican to say, like that the blame for the current partisan atmosphere lies with President Obama, because he didn't seek common ground with Republicans enough. Anyone who has been watching politics for the last three and a half years knows how utterly insane this is, but in case you missed this tidbit, a bunch of influential congressional Republicans got together on the night of Obama's inauguration to lay out a plan for how they would obstruct everything they could and sabotage his presidency.
The question of what Jeb is up to sheds some light on where his party is going to find itself this coming fall, should it lose the presidential election. The simplest explanation for his willingness to tenderly criticize other Republicans is that he is realistic about the country's yearning for more Bushes in the White House, so he feels free to state the blindingly obvious about his party's gallop to the right. The alternative answer, which Jonathan Chait suggests, is that Jeb "is clearly engaged in an effort to position himself as the next leader of the Republican Party." Chait explains:
To understand what Bush is saying, you need to anticipate how the party might diagnose the causes of a loss in 2012, and then you can see how he is setting himself as the cure. Bush has been publicly urging Republicans to moderate their tone toward Latinos and to embrace immigration reform. Here is the one issue where Republicans, should they lose, will almost surely conclude that they need to moderate their party stance. The Latino vote is both growing in size and seems to be tilting ever more strongly toward the Democrats, a combination that will rapidly make the electoral map virtually unwinnable. Indeed, the body language of the Romney campaign suggests it already regrets the hard-line stances on immigration it adopted during the primary...
If you try to imagine the Republican consensus after a potential losing election, it will look like this [a moderation in tone, without a moderation in substance]. It will recognize that its harsh partisan rhetoric turned off voters, and will urgently want to woo Latinos, while holding on to as much as possible of the party’s domestic policy agenda. And oh, by the way, the party will be casting about for somebody to lead it.
Chait may indeed be right about what Jeb is thinking. But it's important to remember that if Romney loses, there will be a vigorous debate within the GOP about why he lost, and the outcome of that debate is not completely certain. Many Republican leaders will certainly argue that the rhetoric got out of hand, and they'll be right. But lots of other Republicans, including the remnants of the Tea Party and the people who represent them, will argue that there was only one reason Romney lost: he was too liberal. They will push for more hardline positions, more uncompromising obstruction, and more conservative candidates, at all levels but especially when it comes to the 2016 presidential race.
You might say, well, that happened in 2012, didn't it? And the establishment's candidate eventually prevailed. That's true enough, but Mitt Romney had the good fortune to run against a remarkable collection of nutballs and buffoons. It isn't as though defeating Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum makes you some kind of giant-killer. After a few months of those primaries, he came out looking like the closest thing the party had to a candidate who was in possession of all his faculties.
In every presidential election in the last half-century with the exception of 2000, Republicans have nominated the person who was "next in line," almost always someone who had run for president before and come in second. But the closest thing to a next in line for 2016 will be Santorum, and the party couldn't possibly be dumb enough to nominate him. There will likely be some candidates more acceptable to the establishment, and some who appeal more to the base. But the former group will still feel enormous pressure to move as far right as possible to placate those base voters. In other words, it's possible Jeb Bush will wind up as the leader of the GOP. But if he does, it won't be because he's a moderate. It'll be because, like Romney, he can give the base the wingnuttery it demands, while winking to the establishment that he's not as crazy as he sounds.