Jeb Bush Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush flashes a power watch before giving his keynote address at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington on Nov. 20, 2014.
Susan Walsh—AP
December 16, 2014 12:22 PM EST

At a time like this, joy is an awfully strange thing to build a presidential campaign around. But here’s Jeb Bush, and he just can’t stop talking about that most delightful and fleeting of human emotions as he edges towards becoming the Republican frontrunner in 2016.

It started months ago, when he began speculating in public over whether the country, and his own party, could handle a candidate with a “hopeful, optimistic message.” “In my case that means, can one do it joyfully?” he told The Today Show in April.

He slipped from the spotlight, but never dropped the talking point. In November, he mentioned the “joy in my heart” when asked by the Wall Street Journal about a presidential run. Then on Monday, at a commencement address in the primary state of South Carolina, he implored students to reach for joy in all they did. “I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits,” he said, one day before announcing his formal intention to explore a campaign. “It’s a pretty pessimistic country right now.”

That’s the bet of the third man named Bush to pursue the presidency in three decades. After a 13 years of relentlessly bad news and increasingly divisive politics, the former Sunshine State governor thinks the country might just be ready for some sunshine of its own. Joy will be his weapon against who accuse him of ideological weakness, hereditary entitlement or establishment blandness. If he ever does face Hillary Clinton in a general election campaign, he can repurpose the vibe to counter rival whose laugh has been so honed by political necessity as to echo in mechanical rhythms.

Relentless and even irrational optimism, of course, is not a novel pose for a presidential contender, but it is hard to remember a candidate so committed to a psychological analysis of the political landscape this early in the cycle. To hear Bush tell it, the nation is “mopey,” beaten down by war, economic stagnation and the furious politics that accompany each.

To Bush, the solutions are right in front of all of us, if only we can pop some Prozac and kick the blues: Reform the immigration system to flood the nation with brilliant entrepreneurs from a abroad, open the taps of domestic energy production, kick the K-12 education system in the rear and fix the tax, regulatory and entitlement nonsense that hangs like a weight around our future. “We are moping around like we are France,” he said on Dec. 1. “The crisis of opportunity is we are not seizing the moment. We are not aspiring to be young and dynamic again.”

To his own party, the shrink’s critique has a neat corollary. “You don’t do well in bringing people together if you are carping, criticizing, turning around and saying you are not as good as me,” he said in an interview with Florida reporters broadcast on Sunday.

That line of attack—which transfers the fight from ideology to feeling—could serve him well in what is certain to be a brutal primary against a monstrously unwieldy field of politicians far more conservative, religious and attuned to tapping the ever-evolving grassroots Id than him. It’s also a message that is likely to work against his most fearsome rival for the establishment crown, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose spirit animal is more carnivorous than cuddly.

“He is going to be a very effective candidate if he runs, because he is going to talk about the future without backing down or pandering to the Tea Party side,” explains Charlie Black, a Republican lobbyist who’s long run in presidential politics started in 1976 on the Ronald Reagan campaign.

The question for Bush is whether there are enough Republicans left, and partial to voting in early primary states, who will put the promise of glee before their deep feelings of grievance and need for reform. Bush last ran for public office in 2002, long before conservatives, libertarians and the Tea Party decided that his family’s tradition of big government conservatism was the problem, not the solution. As Bush has wisely observed, his best route victory in 2016 will require him to lose the debate stage policy argument in the primary while still finding a way to get more votes.

That’s a tough circle to square if all you are working with are facts and figures. But joy exists outside the realm of what is. That’s why we all seek it out: To make something else of who we are.

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