Jeb Bush announced last weekend that he is releasing 250,000 e-mails from his two terms as Florida’s governor. This move, along with a planned e-book incorporating the e-mails, was taken as the surest sign yet that he is planning a presidential run in 2016.
Sure enough, two days later, Bush announced on his Facebook page that he will actively explore a presidential candidacy.
Bush has said that if he runs for president, he will do it differently from past candidates. “Lose the primary to win the general” is how he described his mindset in a recent interview.
That’s 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.
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The early release of such a large e-mail 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 e-mails 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.
Given this level of candor, though, it also will be a test of the Bush gambit: Will voters and the press read these e-mails 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 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.
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 past 15 years? Business records? Business e-mails? 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.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.