Jeb Bush announced this weekend that he is releasing 250,000 emails from his two terms as Florida’s governor. North Korean hackers may be dismayed that he beat them to it, but Bush 2016 boosters are happy. This move, along with a planned e-book incorporating the emails, was taken as the surest sign yet that he is planning a presidential run in 2016.
“It has been kind of fun to go back and to think about this,” Bush told Glenna Milberg, a Florida TV reporter, “and remind myself that if you run with big ideas and then you’re true to those ideas, and get a chance to serve and implement them and do it with passion and conviction, you can move the needle. And that's what we need right now in America.”
That sure sounds like a man who is running, which may also change the calculus of others who are thinking about a run. Mitt Romney left the impression recently with one of his backers I talked to that he would not consider another run if Bush entered the race. And if Bush weren't preparing for a run, why would he go through this massive email dump? It’d be like taking your rental car to the shop to get it detailed. (Update, Dec. 16, 10 a.m.: And sure enough, two days later, Bush announced on his Facebook page that he will actively explore a run for the presidency.)
Bush has said that if he runs for president, he will do it differently than past candidates. “Lose the primary to win the general,” is how he described his mindset in a recent interview.* That’s actually a temporal impossibility—losing teams don’t get to compete in the Super Bowl—but for Bush it is shorthand for approaching the Republican primary differently. In essence, he may run the risk of doing things that are usually considered destructive in the GOP primary, but that he envisions will be so effective that he not only wins the primary but also emerges stronger for the general election.
The early release of such a large email trove is the first test of that proposition. It’s laudable, political, and risky. Bush is dropping a candor bomb that all voters of any party should applaud. Presidential campaigns have seen a vast drop in planned candor over the years. Candidates are terrified that the few interesting words that fall out of their mouths will appear on video somewhere or will be tweeted out of context. So their campaigns desperately try to keep them from ever saying any of them. They certainly don’t want a lot of easy access to emails that might show what candidates look like when they have their guards down.
As voters though, we should encourage this kind of candor. It tells us something about how candidates work, how their ideas are formed, and how they operate in their actual jobs. That is a window into the attributes they’ll actually bring in office. So much of what gets discussed in presidential campaigns is not that. Given this level of candor, though, it will also be a test of the Bush gambit: Will voters and the press read these emails in context, or will they single out a line in the 250,000 messages to define Bush out of all proportion and reason?
The political benefit to the release is that Bush gets to remind everyone of his time as governor and write his own story. It’s more creative than the usual route candidates take, which is to write a campaign biography. Such books, in keeping with the trend toward eliminating all candor, are produced with ever greater precision at passing through the mind of the reading public without leaving a single impression.
This week, Joshua Green and Miles Weiss's Businessweek story about Bush’s private investments and business practices has raised the question about whether he has a “Romney problem,” meaning whether his private business interests will come to define him and offer vulnerabilities his opponents might exploit. He may face these issues; we’ll see. One way to combat such a problem is to create a large enough narrative about who you are that voters are attracted to that, rather than repelled by whatever mean things your opponent says about your business career. If he pulls it off, this email surge will be partially responsible.
This data release is also a statement about the values he would bring to the presidency. “I think part of serving or running, both of them, is transparency—to be totally transparent,” he said. “So I’ll let people make up their mind. There’s some funny ones, there’s some sad ones, there’s some serious ones.” That’s also a challenge to his opponents. Think of the trouble Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker have gotten into over emails and texts. Assuming Bush doesn’t have any bombshells, he can present his administration as drama-free and effective. Disclosure also sets up a favorable contrast to the Clinton operation, which is known as tightly closed.
Of course, this surprise move could backfire terribly. Once a candidate starts being candid about things, the press and public want more of it. Tax returns for the last 15 years? Business records? Business emails? The distinction between what he releases and what he doesn’t can quickly devolve into a debate that detracts from the solutions-oriented campaign he wants to run.
Bush could still decide not to enter the race. He hasn’t done anything yet in furtherance of a presidential exploration that would hurt himself personally—turning down business opportunities, lucrative speeches, and stepping down from boards. When he makes a genuine financial or personal sacrifice, that’s when we’ll know he’s passed the point of no return. But if this is the first step in his 2016 campaign, he has already defined it as a different one.
Correction, Dec. 16, 2014: This article originally misquoted Jeb Bush’s description of his mindset if he were to run for president as “lose the general to win the primary.” Bush described it as “lose the primary to win the general.” (Return.)