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Jeb Bush's path to victory in 2016

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Is Jeb Bush really a viable presidential contender for the present-day version of the GOP? In April, Ben Smith dismissed the idea as "a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party." And certainly some members of the conservative grassroots find him too moderate for their taste.

But I'm not so sure he should be written off.

Relative moderates win all the time

To find the GOP nominating a former governor with a record of significant ideological heresies, you have to go all the way back to Mitt Romney in 2012. Before him, it was a Senator with very significant ideological heresies — John McCain in 2008. Before him, it was George W. Bush — a man with policy positions that are very similar to Jeb's.

It's difficult to make the case that Romney or McCain were able to win because they were running in some long-ago non-conservative version of the GOP. They both won because even in its modern-day monolithically conservative guise, the Republican Party exhibits considerable tactical flexibility in who they nominate for president. The nominee needs to run on a conservative platform, but he does not need an unbroken record of rigid conservatism in his past.

Nobody cares about the Common Core

The thought that the Common Core, of all things, would somehow derail a presidential campaign is a little odd. Federal education policy is a second-tier issue, and as Nate Silver has shown there's no clear partisan tilt on the Common Core issue among the mass public. Lots of ordinary parents find the Common Core to be somewhat bizarre, but it's well-supported among education experts.

And, crucially, Jeb is not some kind of ideological heretic on education policy issues. Within the relatively small world of conservative education specialists, he's extremely well-liked. If party leaders decide that a charge against the Common Core is their #1 goal for 2017, then obviously Jeb is out of luck. But that would be a very weird thing to decide.

Obama saved Jeb's bacon on immigration

Bush's record of support for immigration reform — including, at times, support for a path to citizenship — is a much bigger deal. This is something people care about.

The good news, for him, is that Obama's executive actions on immigration change the issue. Bush is free to denounce these actions as a gross abuse of presidential authority. He's even free to argue that they've poisoned the waters, and created a situation where an enforcement-first approach that restores the credibility of American border control is the only viable path forward. What he's not free to do, of course, is run as a candidate who wants to bring a real path to citizenship for America's millions of undocumented residents. Past transgressions are forgivable, but the GOP is now a party that has firmly positioned itself against any hint of "amnesty" and its next nominee will reflect that.

Do new people really run the GOP?

Smith is certainly right that the Jebmentum is sustained primarily by the people "who used to run the Republican Party."

What's less clear is whether those people have actually been displaced by anybody else. The Republican leaders in the House and Senate — John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — continue to be comfortable establishment figures, well-liked on K Street and not-beloved by grassroots activists. In the 2014 midterms, Republican leaders made a big effort to make sure to recruit candidates who, though conservatives, would act in a more disciplined and professional way than some of the Tea Party favorites of 2010 and 2012. Michele Bachmann is retiring from Congress, not taking over the caucus. Karl Rove runs a big and successful SuperPAC.

Jeb's path to the nomination is difficult, because it runs through several other very plausible contenders — Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, etc. — in a way that his brother's did not in 2000. But there's nothing in his record to suggest he's beyond the pale for a GOP nominee, and no real evidence that the Republican establishment that nominated his brother and his father has changed enough to sink his candidacy.

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