It wasn’t exactly subtle, and that was the point.
After more than a year of playing Hamlet, Jeb Bush had left most media and political players wondering if he was just too ambivalent to mount a presidential campaign. And he needed to send a clear, unambiguous signal that he wants to be a contender in 2016.
Voila: the magic leak. Well-placed sources orchestrated a doubleheader, the message delivered simultaneously on the front pages of two major newspapers.
The former Florida governor followed up by announcing he’ll release all 250,000 e-mails he sent during his tenure and telling a Miami station that he plans to write an e-book. My translation: he’s in.
There are obstacles, to be sure, and Jeb could still change his mind. But a veteran politician doesn’t pull the media strings the way he did if he’s not 95 percent of the way there. It seems to me very likely that a third Bush is running for the White House.
One source close to Bush thinks I’m overreacting, and that this was more in the nature of dropping a hint to keep potential backers from jumping ship. “He’s not yet made a final decision, but he’s going through his process and starting to get more active in looking at this,” the person said of Bush.
Another veteran Republican strategist tamped things down as well: “I’ve never been more confused by messages from a campaign. One person close to Bush told me, ‘Oh my gosh, no way he’s running.’ Other people say, ‘No, it’s been really well orchestrated, exactly how he wants to do it.’ Then there’s a third group that swears he’s doing it for business reasons, to get his name out there. I’m as befuddled as everyone else.”
The befuddlement may be over. Bush used his Facebook page this morning to say that he's "actively exploring" a presidential bid, making it clear that the twin leaks to the newspapers were the first toes in the campaign waters, and now he's up to his chest.
Here’s how the New York Times played it:
“In the past few weeks, Mr. Bush has moved toward a run for the White House. His family’s resistance has receded. His advisers are seeking staff. And the former governor is even slimming down, shedding about 15 pounds thanks to frequent swimming and personal training sessions after a knee operation last year.”
The Washington Post seconded that emotion:
“Jeb Bush and his emissaries are sending increasingly strong signals that the former Florida governor is gearing up for a 2016 presidential campaign, with associates saying he could announce his intentions within a month.
“Bush recently e-mailed major Republican donors asking them to, as several of them put it, ‘keep your powder dry.’ His allies are urging would-be bundlers not to commit to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or other potential rivals. Bush’s top strategist, Mike Murphy, has also been telling potential campaign staffers not to sign up to work for another candidate and to expect Bush’s announcement soon.”
Murphy, who helped run John McCain’s first presidential campaigns, is quoted in both pieces—another signal that this is not merely the musing of hangers-on.
When 2016 has come up in the past, Bush has openly wondered whether a candidate who holds what would be viewed by the party’s hard-line wing as moderate positions on immigration and education could win the nomination. He said at a Wall Street Journal event earlier this month that a nominee should be willing to "lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles." But is that really possible in a party that has changed substantially since first nominating his brother 14 years ago — not to mention his dad 26 years ago? Bush said then he had to do “a lot of soul searching.”
As the Times piece put it, “Before pursuing the presidency, Mr. Bush, 61, is grappling with the central question of whether he can prevail in a grueling primary battle without shifting his positions or altering his persona to satisfy his party’s hard-liners. In conversations with donors, friends and advisers, he is discussing whether he can navigate, and avoid being tripped up by, the conservative Republican base.”
So maybe this is just an exploratory thing? I think the e-book settles that. Bush is leaving himself an escape hatch, but you don’t mount that kind of full-court press and enlist two top newspapers only to walk away lightly.
The mini-blitz may have been designed in part to counter a well reported piece in Bloomberg Businessweek titled “Jeb Bush Has a Mitt Romney Problem.” That story said Bush recently launched a new private equity fund — hardly the mark of someone preparing to abandon a business career — and that other equity ventures could subject him to Bain-style attacks. Some GOP insiders considered the piece damaging to Bush's chances.
It’s a cliché, but you need fire in the belly to run for president. Jeb knows that better than most, having seen the process up close, as he contemplates whether the country is ready for another Bush vs. Clinton campaign.
You can’t run these days without a press strategy. At the very least, Jeb Bush has just demonstrated that he knows how to work the media refs.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.