Jeb Bush: Business, Politics, or Both?

Jeb Bush Talk

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Jeb Bush: Business, Politics, or Both?
| published July 18, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

With New Jersey Chris Christie back in the headlines of the last few weeks—promoting his potential candidacy and test-marketing ideas to a variety of influential GOP and conservative groups—the question of his viability resurfaces: has the governor put sufficient distance between himself and what became known as Bridgegate?

Christie, a star speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention and a presumed front-runner for the GOP sweepstakes in 2016, faced withering incoming fire for the alleged actions of some working for him last fall. At that time, as emails and text messages seem to indicate, top members of Christie’s staff apparently ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which connects Ft. Lee, New Jersey with Manhattan in New York.

When it was revealed that the lane closures were part of a campaign of political retribution—payback for a lack of unconditional support by Ft. Lee’s mayor and others—the orange traffic cones began to fly. More accusations were piled on, as others accused the governor of a variety of forms of political arm-twisting and heavy-handed budgetary extortion. Christie’s presidential ambitions seemed to be in danger, then, as things got worse, his 2016 chances appeared to be ruined.

In the meantime, the GOP turned its gaze in other directions. The list of possible candidates is quite long, and, depending on who you talk to, the roster can alternate between two to five top tier choices, with a least a dozen additional names on the next tier. Neither Mitt Romney nor John McCain has expressed any interest in a reprise of their previous candidacies. Each has run twice for President. Each was nominated by the Republican Party once. Both lost to Barack Obama.

But 2016 is an open year, meaning there are no incumbents in the running. If Vice-President Joe Biden decides not to run (he has neither ruled-out, nor ruled-in, a candidacy), there will be no one with seniority ascending within either party, though clearly former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeks to use her impressive resume and her Washington experience as a sort of de facto incumbency status (just as she attempted in 2008 against Democratic adversaries John Edwards and Barack Obama). In the unlikely event that Clinton decides not to run in 2016 (that would surely be the longest of longshot bets in Las Vegas), there are only a handful of Democrats waiting in the wings: Andrew Cuomo, Brian Schweitzer, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, and of course Biden. Though there has been some discussion of John Kerry as an alternative to Clinton in 2016, Kerry has tried to quash such speculation.

The Republican side of the equation has more names to offer. Chris Christie, once the candidate at the top of most Republicans’ lists, is seeking to aggressively rehabilitate his image. If he can successfully put the bridge scandals behind him—and assuming there are no more unexploded political bombshells—he may yet battle his way back into the top tier. Others often discussed as potential presidential timber include Rand Paul (Kentucky), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Florida), Mike Pence (Indiana), and Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, both of Wisconsin. Further out in the wings are Sam Brownback of Kansas and Nikki Haley of South Carolina. And Texas Governor Rick Perry—a 2012 candidate—has been making major headlines of late, sparring with the President over border problems and immigration, and making himself widely available for media discussion on the recent influx of young immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

But for many Republicans, the last name Bush still carries resonance and weight. Bush has been busy—promoting his book on immigration and border security (about as relevant a topic as any for the GOP), hawking his views on education reform, making paid appearances and giving speeches, and in general keeping the sort of high-profile necessary for a potential presidential candidate to remain relevant, and prepared. Bush has not answered the question of his candidacy directly, but says he is weighing his options. He told reporters earlier this year that he will make a firm decision by the end of 2014, and some experts believe that his answer may come as early as October or November.

Bush, after decades of public service in the Sunshine State, is also looking at his business options—a sign, perhaps to some analysts, that a presidential run in 2016 may not be at the top of his list of priorities. Already involved as a board member or consultant for several major companies, including Tenet Healthcare Corporation, Bush recently shepherded his Britton Hill Holdings into a major investment in a Connecticut company specializing in oil and gas shipments from the U.S. to China. Bush also, just last month, partnered with several former bankers to invest in other oil and gas projects. The new investment firm will be based in Coral Gables, Florida.

But not everyone interprets Bush’s recent business ventures as negating a possible run for president in 2016—or further in the future. Bush may be seeking to shore up the business component of his resume: what better way to sell his candidacy to an American electorate skeptical of another Bush in the White House than to demonstrate his ability to create jobs and spur measurable economic growth.

The question for many political watchers is simple: will a Jeb Bush deeply immersed in private equity and capital investment create a replay of 2012. The narrative that too easily developed to Mitt Romney’s great disadvantage was that the former Massachusetts Governor had spent too many years in a rarified, stratified space in the business world, and that his so-called business miracles as a turnaround artist were in fact little more than opportunities to strip smaller companies of their assets, lay-off employees and sell what remained to the highest bidder. Coupled with Romney’s famous misstep—a secretly-recorded conversation in which the candidate told a group of high-powered campaign donors that at least 47% of Americans are inextricably linked to government handouts, and therefore are more-or-less permanently beholden to the Democratic Party—the narrative of Romney as businessman-turned-economic-savior quickly became one of Romney the "vulture capitalist" and the One Percenter.

But Bush, most observers concede, is no Romney. Scrupulous to the letter, and careful in his choice of language, Jeb Bush can be expected to be fully prepared for any blowback—if there is any negative feedback at all. Where Romney at times seemed almost happily oblivious to his detachment from the middle class, Bush is more nuanced in his choice of words, as well as somewhat more sensitive to the obvious disparities between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Bush is also largely a creature of transparency and accountability—meaning it is unlikely he would want to get deeply involved in business partnerships which might bring with them heavy political liabilities. In short, if his new business dealings go south, or should they provide negative feedback for Democrats, the political impact could be fatal.

Of greater concern for some within the GOP: political fallout from the nature of Bushes new business ventures. If Bush were to win the Republican nomination, would Democrats hurl a green campaign at him—essentially portraying the former Florida governor as a product of the oil and gas industry? Some of the energy projects being funded by Britton Hill include oil drilling, gas pipeline activities, and shale oil—but most controversially of all, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, widely disparaged by environmentalists as exceedingly dangerous, as well as damaging to water supplies. Would Bush cancel out any opportunity to engage in green discussions or debates? And would he also lower his credibility at a time when alternative energy sources have begun to gain traction in mainstream press?

Some conservatives also worry about the deeper impact of Bush’s oil and gas portfolio, and the provenance of some of those funds. Some of the biggest investments in the Britton Hill energy ventures come from Chinese firms, with tens of millions in cash coming from companies like HNA Group Company, headquartered in Beijing and Haikou City, China. HNA is a conglomerate with more than 30 separate subsidiaries and dozens of other companies for which it owns substantial shares. Among its major holdings are airlines, ground transportation, and shipping—industries always thirsty for new sources of oil.

Still, in an increasingly interconnected, global economy, Bush could easily defend the presence of Chinese backers on his oil and gas projects.

In the end, Bush may find that it comes down to polling and perceptions, not just a carefully crafted investment strategy. No level of conscientious investing, nor any amount of job creation, can overtake the value—for better or for worse—of the family name. If Bush were to be nominated by the GOP, would Americans be ready for a rematch of Bush versus Clinton? And would the negative baggage associated with older brother George W. Bush be too much weight for Jeb to carry into a general election?

In the meantime, Bush’s book (Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution; co-authored by Clint Bolick; see our review at Thursday Review) seems not merely well-timed but oddly prescient as thousands of children and teenagers arrive each month along the U.S. border with Mexico. Business ventures aside, Bush may be one of only a few within the GOP with a reasonable chance at bringing Latinos back into the Republican fold.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bush Versus Clinton: Déjà vu, All Over Again; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 11, 2014.

GOP: Not in Kansas Anymore; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 3, 2014.

Immigration and the Human Dimension; book review, Immigration Wars; Thursday Review; April 27, 2013.