"I am running into him more around the country than before I would have expected, more [than] when he was governor," said Grover Norquist, head of the influential Americans for Tax Reform and a connected Republican tactician if there ever was one. "As I travel around, I hear Jeb Bush was here last week or is coming next month. And I didn't hear that when he was governor..."
What kind of impact the Bush reemergence will have on the broader landscape is a hotly debated question within both party circles. During the 2008 cycle, these officials were marginalized -- either burned out from the past eight years or too toxic for prospective candidates to touch (the McCain campaign, famously, had a fiery relationship with the former president and his team). Now back on, what one operative called "political terra firma," they have already positioned themselves as the axis around which the GOP's election strategies will turn. Both Rove and Gillespie have used their Rolodexes to recruit major donors and their reputations to pow-wow with some of the more high-profile candidates.
Of course, there's some self-aggrandizement going on, several officials cautioned anonymously. Rove, in particular, is often described as more interested in advancing his own brand, often by overstating his influence. "Karl seems to be mostly in the Karl Rove business," said one GOP operative. "Selling books, going on TV, writing for the Wall Street Journal, speaking engagements. I don't know much advising he is doing."
But that sentiment is not shared by everyone. Indeed, at a time when the campaign committees (mainly the RNC) have floundered, more top-flight Republicans are looking at the operatives who led the Bush years as the closest they can get to a sure thing.
"I think that those two particularly [Rove and Gillespie] bring a credibility," says Norquist. "If you want to write a really big check, you trust Ed Gillespie and Rove will spend $1 million wisely... Both of them you can look at through the prism of the last six election cycles. They've won some and lost some but they are always shooting in the right direction."
Whether that direction ends up being right for the GOP in 2010 remains to be seen. For Democrats, Rove's involvement has been cheered -- in as much as it's created the ideal boogeyman to get the 2010 blood flowing.
"He is larger than life all across the spectrum," explained Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who has worked on campaigns at all levels of governance. "His contradiction is being well-known for the colossal failures attributed to his watch and also being well-known for his intellectual, strategic abilities."
But the major question is whether or not the old Bush guard is properly suited for the modern GOP. Rove, to this point, has had two high-profile endorsement busts: Sen. Bob Bennett in the Utah Republican primary, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the Texas gubernatorial primary. In each instance, he found himself on the wrong side of the Tea Party movement. Whether those are simply glitches in a broader effort to get Republicans elected or indicative of the grassroots and the Bush clan not operating off the same playbook is a major question going forward. And it's one that Jeb Bush -- as he ponders a potential 2012 bid -- will have to consider as well.
"I think that Bush-ism is still alive," said John Feehery, a longtime GOP consultant. "There is, however, an anti-Bushism in the party associated with the Rand Paul crowd. They don't like neocons and government. And Sarah Palin could be seen as part of that group... What people like about Jeb Bush is that he is smart and conservative and well-liked by the base... If there is going to be a Bush revival, Jeb is going to be the leader of that revival.
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