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Opinion: Columnists

If Jeb Bush fears 'mudfight,' he's not ready for 2016

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Politics,Opinion,Education,Byron York,Columnists,Immigration,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Jeb Bush

Does Jeb Bush sound like a man who wants to run for president? In an extended interview with Fox News' Shannon Bream, the former Florida governor gave the impression of someone who would like to be president but has been out of the game for a while and isn't particularly eager to jump in the trenches and fight for it. The only problem is, whoever wins the 2016 Republican nomination -- and there will be a field full of candidates in top form -- will have to jump in the trenches and fight for it.

Describing the politics of the moment as "pretty crazy," Bush said he will wait until the end of the year to decide whether to run. "I go about my business each day trying to avoid having to think about it," he told Bream. "I've got a lot of work to do. I've got a fulfilled life."

Bush said he will consider two big questions when he decides. The first will be, "Can a candidate run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give people a sense that it's not just words, and not get thrown, not get back into the vortex of the mudfight?" Bush added that he would want to campaign "joyfully," without being tied to "all the convention of the politics of the here and now."

Bush has not run for office since 2002, the year he won re-election in Florida. In the years since, campaigns have gotten a lot faster; every day is filled with the politics of the here and now. And there's a good chance that the 2016 race, with the White House wide open, will get pretty rough. How would a mudfight-averse candidate handle it?

"He's run three campaigns," a source in the Bush circle said Monday. "He knows what this takes. He's not naïve about what a presidential campaign looks like."

Bush might have good reason to expect a battle if he emphasizes two issues he addressed specifically with Bream. On immigration, he urged understanding for those who have come to the United States illegally. Doing so to support one's family "isn't a felony," Bush declared, "it's an act of love."

That alone will be sure to start some mudfights on the 2016 trail. And so will the other policy position Bush mentioned, his support of the Common Core education standards initiative, which is wildly unpopular with conservatives.

If a candidate takes Bush's positions on those two issues and hopes to run joyfully without becoming bogged down in the politics of the here and now — well, good luck. Still, the plan for a Bush campaign, should there be one, would be to run a different style of race.

"It's not, 'I'm not willing to take my share of bruises,'" said the source. "He's aware of that. But can he bring a different tone to a campaign and talk about substantive issues in a different way? He thinks campaigns have become increasingly myopic."

Bush's other key concern in deciding on a run is the welfare of his family. "Is it something that isn't a huge sacrifice for our family?" he said in the Fox interview, conceding that the question involves "a lot of love and emotion, and I just don't want to go through that until the right time."

The role family plays in Bush's decision will be hard for outsiders to assess. There has long been talk in political circles that Bush's wife, Columba, is, as some insiders tactfully put it, not ready for prime time. There have also been drug problems with a child, although its not clear whether that would be a hindrance or whether it would win Bush the empathy of millions of Americans who've had the same thing in their own families.

The fact that Bush is seriously considering a run indicates he has probably made a lot of money since leaving office in 2007. He didn't have tons of it before, having spent some of his most productive years in public service. Now, Bush makes a living in the standard post-politician way. He has his own consulting firm, Jeb Bush and Associates, and serves as a senior adviser to Barclays Capital. He also makes paid speeches and sits on several corporate boards. All that will, of course, be scrutinized if he runs.

In the Fox interview, Bush said a campaign should be about "winning the election, not making a point." Winning, he said, "should be what we're about." But the bottom line is that, at least right now, Bush just doesn't seem like a politician in top fighting shape. It's not even clear he wants the fight at all. That's the real question for Jeb Bush.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner