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Thursday, December 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama will no doubt clash regularly with his newly empowered partisan adversaries in Congress. But the most important struggle in American politics over the next two years will be inside the Republican Party. And the person who can play a decisive role in that battle is Jeb Bush.

Yes, Democrats have their own divides, usually described as differences between their populist and Wall Street camps. Still, there is broad agreement inside the party, even among most of its Wall Streeters, that wage stagnation and economic inequality are major problems for the country and that Democrats need to make dealing with them their central purpose.

There also is this: For now, at least, Hillary Clinton is as close to a certainty as the party’s 2016 nominee as you get in this business.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are divided over what they believe, how they should govern, whom they should appeal to, and what constitutes success. You can already see the turmoil over how they should deal with Obama’s impending executive action on immigration.

The Rush Limbaugh-Ted Cruz Permanent Revolution Complex thinks that any Republican not willing to ponder government shutdowns and even impeachment to foil Obama’s designs is an unprincipled squish.

The party’s more traditional politicians are scrambling to sound tough while avoiding Armageddon, reasoning sensibly that most voters don’t like disruptive confrontation or fighting to the death over every disagreement.

But here’s the problem: The party’s realists have spent the last six years engaged in a massive exercise in appeasement. This applies to its entire leadership, but especially to House Speaker John Boehner, who lives in constant fear of a rebellion on the right of his caucus. To the extent that there is a party establishment, it has hung on only by claiming it agrees with the rebels on the right when it comes to substance and that its differences with them are primarily tactical.

Someone has to come along and challenge the far right’s worldview altogether. And this is where Jeb Bush comes in.

What the polls suggest is that the former Florida governor will never become a favorite of the far right. They simply don’t trust him, and they don’t trust his family, either. There is reason for this.

The Bush family, from Sen. Prescott Bush to presidents 41 and 43, has never been part of the GOP’s right wing, even though the last two spent a lot of their energy appeasing it.

Not so Prescott Bush, a proud Eisenhower Republican who separated himself from the right and spoke up for modernizing his party. He preached a philosophy he said could be called either “progressive moderation” or “moderate progressivism” — which makes him sound an awful like a supporter of both Clintons.

But Prescott Bush represented Connecticut while his presidential son and grandson made their careers in Texas, which demands a more robust commitment to conservatism. Still, both Bush 41 and Bush 43 tried to move the party toward a somewhat more pragmatic version of the center-right creed, but they also had to hedge their bets.

Recall that 41 signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a revised Clean Air Act, — and yes, that famous tax increase that broke his “read my lips” pledge, itself an ideological concession to the right. Bush 43 started out championing “compassionate conservatism” and school reform, but his advisors came to believe that mobilizing the right rather than winning the center was the key to victory in 2004. The second President Bush ended up alienating left and right alike.

Jeb Bush can be bolder because he will have to be. If he runs, he will never out-libertarian Rand Paul and he will never out-Tea Party Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. His campaign will work only if it has a point, and the logical point for him to make is that Republicans won’t win unless they start to get very serious about governing and more open to the demographic realities of the United States in 2016.

Don’t get me wrong: Jeb Bush is very conservative. He wouldn’t be my candidate. But he does believe in immigration reform and in the power of government to do some good. He speaks optimistically about our country’s future at a time when so many on the far right think it is — quite literally — going to hell in a permissive liberal handbasket.

Republicans desperately need someone to do for them what Bill Clinton did in making the Democrats electable in 1992. If not Jeb, who?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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